From barbecue restaurants to highway beautification, judges are considering the impact of the Signs Ordinance
November 10, 2021
The Supreme Court heard an oral argument on Wednesday about the challenge to the Texas city ordinance, which treats it differently based on whether the sign is connected to the location.U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rule The regulation violated the First Amendment, but in more than 90 minutes of oral debate City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising Bureau, Texas, The Supreme Court is very divided on this issue. Although some judges seem to agree with the opinion of the Fifth Circuit, other judges are clearly concerned that upholding the Fifth Circuit’s decision may have an impact far beyond the statutes they are considering.
Attorney Michael Dreeben represented the city of Austin in the debate. Austin’s sign regulations allow signs to advertise “on-site” businesses or events—that is, businesses or activities that are connected to the location of the sign, but prohibit new “closed” locations. “Signs, lack this connection. The city’s decree also prohibits owners of pre-existing external signs-but not owners of internal signs-from converting them into digital signs. Dreeben told the judge that the Fifth Circuit was interpreting The 2015 ruling of the Supreme Court was wrong. Reed v Gilbert Town, Believes that Arizona cities and towns cannot impose different restrictions on the display of temporary signs based on their information, “this means that officials must read the signs at any time to apply the law.” The law regulates speech based on its content. Such laws are subject to the strictest constitutional test, that is, rigorous review.
Dreeben believes that Austin’s off-site rules “is an empty container that applies to all themes and themes.” He explained that this rule depends on “the relationship between the sign and its location, not the content of its message.”
Justice Clarence Thomas was skeptical. He provided one of the many hypotheses he put forward in the morning, referring to the famous Austin BBQ restaurant Franklin Grill, and pointed out that the logo cannot promote the restaurant unless it is inside the restaurant. “I don’t understand,” Thomas concluded, “how is this not based on content.”
Judge Neil Gossack asked Benjamin Snyder, Assistant Attorney General of the United States, who represented the United States in supporting the city’s debate about whether the city’s ordinances might support popular views rather than unpopular views. For example, Gorsuch said that if there are 1,000 Christian churches and 12 mosques in a city and the use of off-site signs is prohibited, the decree will ultimately benefit churches.
Snyder retorted that the question facing the court is whether the regulation regulates speech based on its content, rather than how the regulation operates in practice, and that the regulation itself “has no inherent content.” But Gorsuch was unmoved. He pressed Snyder to ask whether Austin could take other measures—such as adjusting the size or brightness of the sign—to solve the safety and aesthetic issues behind the decree. When Snyder responded that these measures were “almost not so effective,” Gorsuch sneered. “This cannot be a test-the effectiveness of the law in suppressing speech,” he said. “The First Amendment is always very inefficient. We agree, don’t we?”
Attorney Kannon Shanmugam represents Reagan National Advertising, a family outdoor advertising company with billboards in Austin and surrounding areas. After the permission to convert an existing billboard into a digital display was denied, the company sued to challenge the city’s ordinance, which would allow them to change the displayed image every few seconds. Shanmugam emphasized that the court only needs to decide whether the city’s ban on converting existing off-site billboards into digital signage violates the narrowness of the First Amendment.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor suggested that there are some functions, including the distinction between internal and external, “it is impossible to directly influence speech in the same way.” reedAccording to whether its content is politics, ideology or religion, a hierarchy of handling signs has been established.
Judge Samuel Alito also expressed suspicion, pointing out that the problem facing Shanmugam’s clients is the prohibition of digitizing their off-site billboards. “Law enforcement officers,” he observed, “you don’t need to read the content on the billboard to determine whether you are in compliance.” In fact, Alito continued to say that even if the billboard is in Chinese, he cannot read Chinese. Law enforcement People can also make a decision, because the key question is whether the billboard is digital.
Shanmugam retorted that the “key fact” of whether his clients can digitize their logo is whether they advertise on or off the venue. Shanmugam emphasized that because they promote off-site events, they cannot be digitized.
Even though some judges do not seem to believe that the application of the Austin Sign Act has nothing to do with the content of the sign, the judges are also concerned that, as Dreeben said, retaining the Fifth Circuit’s decision would have “untenable effects.”
For example, Alito pointed out that the federal regulations that require disclosure by various types of companies are “all based on content.” Snyder said that the exact impact of the court’s ruling “obviously depends on the court’s opinion”, but the ruling on these companies “will certainly raise a series of very difficult questions about things that have long been considered resolved.”
Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that an important influence of the ruling on the Reagan National Party may be the federal Highway Beautification Act“According to your theory,” he told Shanmugam, “I think” the five clauses in the bill concerning signs “will be unconstitutional.”
Shanmugam acknowledged that the terms mentioned by Roberts will be considered content-based and will therefore be reviewed under a strict censorship test. But he suggested that these regulations may still pass constitutional review based on the government’s precise interests and how the supervision works.
Shanmugam’s response to Roberts led Judge Elena Kagan to file a dilemma in court. She acknowledged that “formally people can understand” the city’s decree is content-based, “though I think,” she added, “the court’s definition of the term is more narrow.” Although Shanmugen assured the court that it was “strictly The review analysis may be different.” Therefore, other laws, such as the Highway Landscaping Law, can still continue to exist. “This is something to worry about,” Kagan hypothesized-“play down the strict review analysis.” Kagan It is suggested that another option is to “draw some reasonable boundaries and place such laws on the other side of the content-neutral, content-based divide.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh can hold the decisive vote, but he also seems contradictory. On the one hand, he (like Gorsuch) asked Snyder why the city could not solve its safety and aesthetic problems by restricting the location, size and number of signs, instead of restricting “any word written on the sign.” On the other hand, He emphasized to Shanmugen that this type of decree “has been in existence for a long time”, and the ruling of the Reagan Nationalist Party will impose a significant burden on “many local jurisdictions across the United States.”
A decision is expected to be made in the summer.
This article is Originally published in Howe on the Court.