A Madison, Wis., ordinance that strictly limited digital billboards does not violate the First Amendment, a federal appeals court has ruled. The court reasoned that limitations on such billboards are a permissible, content-neutral way to address aesthetics and safety issues.
In 2009, the city banned digital-image signs that were off-premises, meaning not at the location of existing businesses. The ordinance also imposed strict limitations on digital billboards that were on the site of existing businesses.
Adams Outdoor, a large national outdoor-advertising company, challenged the differential treatment of digital billboards on First Amendment grounds. The company argued that treated off-premise signs less favorably than on-premise signs was an impermissible law that discriminated on the basis of content.
A federal district judge ruled for the city, finding that the ordinance was a content-neutral way of advancing the city’s interests in aesthetics and public safety. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court in Adams Outdoor Adver. Ltd. P’ship v. City of Madison (2023).
The appeals court held that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising (2022) controlled the case. In that decision, the high court determined that a billboard ordinance’s on-premises/off-premises distinction was content-neutral. The Court ruled that the ordinance limited speech on the basis of location, not content.
Applying this decision, the 7th Circuit held that Madison’s billboard ordinance was similarly content-neutral because it regulated digital billboards only by location, not content. The appeals court explained: “As City of Austin has now made clear, the on-/off-premises line is content-neutral so intermediate scrutiny applies. And we see no flaw in the judge’s analysis and decision upholding the City’s ban on digital-image signs under that more lenient standard of review.”
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David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).