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U.S. Supreme Court takes up Austin's ban on 'off-premises' digital billboards

The case before the Supreme Court is about billboards, but concerns the broad questions of free speech rights.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin’s billboard laws have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justices on Wednesday will hear a case in City of Austin, Texas v. Reagan National Advertising of Texas Inc. over a city ordinance that prohibits the use of digital billboards on off-business premises.

The ordinance prevents billboard companies from changing existing signs into digital ones for aesthetic and safety reasons, with the City arguing the digital billboards are ugly and distracting to drivers. The case before the Supreme Court concerns the broad questions of free speech rights.

In this particular case, Reagan National Advertising of Texas Inc. applied for permits to digitize 84 off-premises billboards and sued the City when the permits were denied, according to the Supreme Court docket.

The Supreme Court will address the question of whether the City code’s distinction between on- and off-premise signs is unconstitutional under Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

Prior to being elevated to the Supreme Court, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the First Amendment invalidated the challenged provisions, holding that the on-premise versus off-premise distinction is content-based under Reed v. Town of Gilbert and fails the strict scrutiny test, according to the court docket.

This summer, a City of Austin spokesperson released the following statement regarding the case:

"The City welcomes the United States Supreme Court’s action taking up review of the constitutionality of our local ordinance regulating billboards. Cities all across the country, including Austin, must grapple with balancing the public policy needs of ensuring traffic safety and protecting local aesthetic values, while also allowing ample room for free speech in advertising. We believe our ordinances do that and are pleased that the Court now has given us an opportunity to explain why what we’ve done achieves the correct balance."

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