City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, Inc.

A Supreme Court case challenging a city sign code that permits on-premises but not off-premises signs to be digitized.

On August 20, 2021, the Knight Institute, joined by Professor Genevieve Lakier, filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court in City of Austin, Texas v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, Inc., a case challenging a city ordinance that distinguishes between on-premises and off-premises signs, allowing the former but not the latter to be digitized.

The Austin city ordinance defines an off-premises sign as one that advertises businesses, goods, or services that are not located on the same site as the sign. The ordinance allows on-premises—but not off-premises—signs to be digitized. The Fifth Circuit held that under the Supreme Court’s decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the distinction between on-premises and off-premises signs is content-based and thus subject to strict scrutiny because, in order for a city official to determine whether a sign is on-premises or off-premises, the official has to read the sign. 

The Institute's amicus brief argued that the Supreme Court’s decision in Reed has caused confusion and inconsistency in the lower courts about the test for determining whether a law is content-based and thus subject to strict scrutiny. The brief suggested that the Supreme Court adopt a more nuanced test or, at the very least, clarify that Reed requires strict scrutiny only of laws that draw distinctions based on viewpoint or subject matter. The brief argues that, under either approach, Austin’s sign code is not content-based and is therefore not subject to strict scrutiny.  

Status: On April 21, 2022, the Supreme Court held that the distinction between on- and off-premises signs is not content-based within the meaning of Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

Case Information: City of Austin, Texas v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, Inc., No. 20-1029 (S. Ct.).

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