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City wants Supreme Court to hear digital billboards case

Thursday, October 29, 2020 by Samuel King

The city of Austin plans to appeal a ruling overturning its ban on digital billboards and signs that aren’t on the site of a business.

In August, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found the city’s distinction between on-premise and off-premise signs violated the First Amendment.

“The city cannot ‘plac(e) strict limits on’ off-premises signs, as ‘necessary to beautify the (city) while at the same time allowing’ on-premises signs of the same type,” the three-judge panel wrote in its opinion.

The panel also found the city had not proved off-premise signs are more dangerous and distracting to drivers than on-premise signs.

City Council met in executive session Tuesday to discuss the case and the next legal steps, a city spokesperson said.

Reagan National Advertising applied to digitize dozens of its billboards in 2017. It sued the city after the applications were rejected under the ban. Lamar Advantage Outdoor Companies later joined the legal effort.

Reagan appealed after a lower court judge sided with the city.

“The Fifth Circuit ruled that the way the city of Austin regulates signs is unconstitutional, and we are confident the U.S. Supreme Court will agree,” Eric Wetzel, a spokesman for Reagan, said in a statement Wednesday. “At this point, our local officials should focus on finding common ground with advertising companies, not continuing to spend tax dollars on needless litigation.”

The nonprofit group Scenic Texas encouraged the city to appeal. Executive Director Sarah Tober said if the ruling is allowed to stand, it could have a wide-ranging impact on billboard regulations in Texas and other nearby states.

“Every city should be able to make their own codes and laws regarding billboards and digital billboards,” she said. “We’re seeing these advertising companies just trying to strike out what these cities have already deemed important for their citizens: protecting that visual environment.”

The city has until January to file the appeal.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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