Supreme Court Takes on Big Free Speech Case

Supreme Court Takes on Big Free Speech Case

( – The right to free speech is one of the many freedoms the Founding Fathers used to set the United States apart from other nations. So, when lawsuits come up involving this core pillar of America, they often make it to the Supreme Court (SCOTUS). The High Court heard one such case centering around Austin, Texas and its limits on billboard ads.

Digital Billboard Restrictions in Austin, Texas

In 2017, advertisers in Austin, Texas, set out to turn their old billboards into digital versions, but the city denied their request using a regulation that allows businesses to place billboards on their own property but nowhere else. However, the advertisers took this decision to court, citing their right to free speech as the reasoning why the city should allow them to update their billboards however they want.

In 2019, a federal court ruled in favor of Austin, declaring its rule did not violate the constitutional right to free speech. However, in 2020, the advertisers appealed the case and won in a lower appeals court. So, the disagreement escalated to the Supreme Court for oral arguments on Wednesday, November 10.

Location Versus Content-Based Advertisements

Austin’s legal counsel, Michael Dreeben, defended the city’s rule citing the ban on off-premise signs bases its decision on “the relationship of a sign to its location, not the content of its message.” However, many justices, including Clarence Thomas, challenged that argument.

Thomas emphasized if a hamburger restaurant advertised its own menu on an on-site billboard, the city would allow it under its current rule. However, if the same hamburger restaurant advertised a barbeque shop a few doors down, the city would deny the billboard request. With this example, Thomas suggested the city is, in fact, discriminating against advertisers based on the content of the sign rather than its location.

Could There Be a “Content Neutral” Rule?

Justice Brett Kavanaugh challenged the City of Austin to consider whether there was another way they could restrict the unsightly and often distracting digital billboards without censoring content. He suggested the city use blanket restrictions on the number and size of the electronic advertisements rather than content limitations.

This case is difficult because the city wants to protect against distracting drivers while curating a beautiful area. However, it cannot do so at the cost of its citizen’s free speech. Americans will likely have to wait until mid to late June for SCOTUS’ decision on City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising. Hopefully, by then, the Justices will provide clear reasoning for their published ruling.

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