The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether a local ordinance regulating the location of digital billboards in Austin, Texas violates the First Amendment.
According to the Washington Examiner, the nine justices heard oral arguments in the case on Wednesday.
Regulating free speech?
Although the Supreme Court will be considering a general question — namely, whether the local law is constitutional — the case stems from a single incident.
The city of Austin reportedly denied two permit applications from Reagan National Advertising, which was looking to replace existing roadside signs with digital ones. The law forbids such changes.
According to the Examiner, the law is meant to preserve Austin’s skyline and to prevent drivers from being distracted. One of the quirks of the measure is that it still allows businesses to place digital billboards on their properties to advertise their products, but it stops them from advertising elsewhere, including on roadsides.
After its permit applications were denied, Reagan National Advertising brought a lawsuit against the city of Austin. That was back in 2017.
Initially, the group lost after a federal judge upheld Austin’s law, finding it to be a permissible content-neutral restriction. This ruling was reversed at the circuit court level, however. The court cited SCOTUS precedent in ruling that the city’s law violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
The justices on the Supreme Court bench decided to take on the case after the lower courts failed to reach a clear outcome.
During oral arguments on Wednesday, Justice Clarence Thomas appeared skeptical of the claim that Austin’s law is a permissible content-neutral restriction.
“I don’t understand how that’s not content-based if I could say ‘Eat at Franklin’s’ if I’m at Franklin’s, but I can’t say it if I’m at McDonald’s or some other place,” Thomas said, according to the Examiner.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, however, reasoned differently: “I think it’s illogical and contrary to any common sense to think that a regulation that says…only states can put up directional signs on highways, that that’s content-based.”
The justices are not expected to issue a final ruling in the case until next year.