Protect the FIRST Foundation Tells Supreme Court that Austin Sign Regulation Offensive to 1st Amendment
Protect The First Foundation filed an amicus brief Wednesday in City of Austin, Texas, v. Reagan National Advertising, before the Supreme Court, showing that a city regulation forbidding “off-premise signs” violates the First Amendment.
Austin city code prohibits signs from displaying messages that advertise “a business, person, activity, goods, products, or services not located where the sign was installed.” A sign cannot even direct people to another location. Any such sign is designated “off-premise” and is forbidden. Although there is an exception for older, grandfathered signs, that protection is lost if the signs are changed or improved.
“Austin’s sign code is inherently about the regulation of content,” said Gene Schaerr, Protect The 1st general counsel. “For that reason alone, it should be subject to – and fail – the strict scrutiny courts apply to First Amendment cases.”
PT1 argues that the regulation restricts speech, including subjects that do not lend themselves to a premise-specific communication, whether it’s “Vote,” “Get Vaxxed,” or “Jesus Saves.”
“Regulations that turn on the content of speech,” the PT1 brief declares, “are particularly troubling and prone to abuse, even where they are not overtly based on the viewpoint of the restricted speech. Often, a content restriction is merely a proxy for viewpoint discrimination. Other times it involves discrimination against topics, types of speech, or speakers. All of those forms of governmental discrimination offend the First Amendment.”
And, PT1 argues, because Austin has not offered any reason why signs bearing off-premise content pose a greater threat to aesthetics and traffic safety than do signs bearing on-premise content, the city cannot justify its speech code. The ordinance is “underinclusive,” and thus unconstitutional.