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American Planning Association

Ohio Chapter

Creating Great Communities for All

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APA Ohio Special Report

U.S. Supreme Court Signage Decision Announced:

Planners Breathed a Sigh of Relief


On April 21, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case Austin v. Reagan that a regulatory distinction between on-premises signs and off-premises signs (billboards) is content-neutral and therefore constitutional. This ruling should allow a huge sigh of relief for the thousands of local governments in the U.S. with sign codes that distinguish between on-premise and off-premise signs, and for the planners entrusted with devising, implementing and enforcing those codes. The ruling affirms that local communities are allowed to regulate on-premises signs differently than billboards. It also reaffirms that sign regulations not based on content are subject to less judicial oversight, and as such, allows local governments to establish sign regulations that serve a substantial government interest, such as traffic safety or aesthetics.


Given the importance of the case for local governments and planning, the American Planning Association had filed an amicus curiae “friend of the court” brief in the case. While APA did not take a position, their brief “supported ensuring that the rationales for sign regulation — community functionality, economic development, traffic safety, and aesthetic beautification — remain available to local governments, and we encouraged the Court to adopt clear rules for the regulation of billboards”.


In their April 21 ruling, the SCOTUS ruling found the City of Austin sign code’s distinction between on-premises signs and off-premises signs was indeed content-neutral under the First Amendment. Austin had contended that their regulatory distinction between billboards and on-premises signs was based on location, not content, and that city should have the ability to treat on-premises signs differently from billboards based on the city’s best interests. The litigants, Reagan National Advertising and Lamar Advantage Outdoor Company had applied for permits from the City of Austin to convert static off-premises billboards to digital signs in violation of the city’s sign code, which prohibited the digitization of off-premise signs.


A major on-premise signage advocacy group, the International Sign Association, applauded the ruling. "We are pleased with the Court's decision in Austin v. Reagan, as it confirms the sign code status quo in thousands of local communities by allowing them to regulate on-premises signs differently than billboards if they so choose”.


The new ruling can be contrasted with the 2015 Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz. case that caused many local governments to revise their sign codes, “Austin’s off-premises distinction requires an examination of speech only in service of drawing neutral, location-based lines. It is agnostic as to content. Thus, absent a content-based purpose or justification, the City’s distinction is content neutral and does not warrant the application of strict scrutiny”.

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Christopher Auffrey, PhD is a Professor of Planning at the University of Cincinnati's DAAP School of Planning and Co-editor of Interdisciplinary Journal of Signage and Wayfinding. Chris is also an APA Ohio At Large Board Member. 


He can be reached at auffrec@ucmail.uc.edu.

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