• Feds Support State/Industry in TN billboard case

    The federal government is supporting the State of Tennessee’s defense of its billboard law as a constitutional regulation that does not violate free speech.

    On March 5, the US Justice Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief (amicus) in the case Thomas v. Schroer.  You can read the brief here.  This gesture is significant because it showcases broad government support for  longstanding billboard controls.


    In Tennessee, plaintiff William H. Thomas challenged the State’s billboard law on constitutional grounds.  In 2017 in Memphis, US District Court Judge Jon P. McCalla ruled Tennessee’s billboard law unconstitutional, citing the First Amendment.

    The federal judge cited the unanimous 2015 US Supreme Court decision (Reed v. Town of Gilbert, AZ) that struck a local sign ordinance because it treated signs differently based on content.

    The Government’s Position

    The State of Tennessee has appealed to the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that its billboard law is not content based.  On February 2, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America filed an amicus brief supporting the State’s position, in conjunction with state outdoor advertising associations in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.

    The legal wrangling has put a spotlight on the regulatory distinction between on-premise and off-premise signs.  Defenders of Tennessee’s billboard law say this distinction is not based on content.

    The federal amicus brief concluded with this summary:

    “The on-premises exception is precisely tailored to further the First Amendment rights of property owners interested in providing information about their property, and to avoid imposing a unique burden on certain owners merely because their property is adjacent to a designated highway. The Court should uphold this narrow, commonsense exception to Tennessee’s broader, and unquestionably content-neutral, rule for promoting the safety and aesthetic value of its highways.”

    Plaintiff Thomas is represented by the Institute for Free Speech, a non-profit advocacy group based in Alexandria, VA.

    “A law that permits a sign that says ‘Fireworks for sale here,’ but prohibits an identical sign that reads ‘Support our troops,’ imposes a content-based restriction on speech,” said Institute Director Allen Dickerson in a January 26 press release.

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