Content-Neutral Ordinance May Apply Different Rules to On- And Off-Premises Signs
A sign ordinance that regulates on-premises signs differently than off-premises signs is content-neutral and subject to greater deference by the courts.
In City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, LLC, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a First Amendment challenge to a sign ordinance that prohibits digitizing existing off-premises signs, but permits digitized on-premises signs. The ordinance defines an “off-premises sign” as “a sign advertising a business, person, activity, goods, products, or services not located on the site where the sign is installed, or that directs persons to any location not on that site.”
The challenge was brought by a company that owns billboards in Austin, Texas. When the company sought permits to digitize some of its off-premises billboards, the City denied the applications. The company then filed suit alleging that the City’s prohibition against digitizing off-premises signs ‒ but not on-premises signs ‒ is a content-based regulation of speech that violated the First Amendment.
Under long-standing legal precedent, content-based speech regulations are subject to strict judicial scrutiny and are presumptively unconstitutional. In contrast, content-neutral speech regulations are subject to a less stringent standard and will be upheld if they are narrowly tailored to serve a substantial government interest unrelated to the suppression of free expression and leave ample alternative channels for communication.
The Court ruled that the sign ordinance’s distinction between on- and off-premises signs is content neutral because the ordinance does not discriminate based on “the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed,” but instead examines speech along neutral, location-based lines. The Court emphasized that its past decisions “have consistently recognized that restrictions on speech may require some evaluation of the speech and nonetheless remain content neutral.”