• Thomas v Schroer brief filed

    Billboard law is unconstitutional because it treats roadside billboards differently than on-site business signs — based on content — says a plaintiff challenging Tennessee’s Billboard Act.

    “The law cannot function without evaluating a message’s meaning,” and thus runs afoul of a 2015 Supreme Court ruling against sign regulation based on content, said the legal brief filed April 4 on behalf of billboard builder William H. Thomas, Jr.

    Thomas is challenging Tennessee’s billboard law on free speech grounds.  A federal judge in Memphis ruled in his favor; the State of Tennessee appealed in 2017 to the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

    The case is Thomas v. Schroer.  John Schroer is the state’s transportation commissioner, and also serves as president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

    In the Thomas case, the briefing period ends April 18, and then the appeals court will assign a three-judge panel. The plaintiff has requested oral arguments due to “an important question of constitutional law.”

    Allen Dickerson

    All sides seem well represented:

    • Thomas is represented by the Institute for Free Speech, a non-profit based in Alexandria, VA. The lead attorney is Allen Dickerson, a former litigation associate with the New York office of Kirkland & Ellis, educated at Yale and New York University School of Law.
    • Lead counsel for the State of Tennessee is Sarah Campbell, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and worked at the litigation firm of Williams & Connolly in Washington, DC, after earning a law degree at Duke.
    • The billboard industry is represented by Kannon Shanmugam of Williams & Connolly, on behalf of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) and state outdoor advertising associations in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan.

    Briefs filed by the State of Tennessee, the US Justice Department, and OAAA says that Tennessee’s billboard law respects free speech, and should be upheld.  The distinction between on-premise and off-premise signs, they say, is based on location, not content.

    In 2015, a unanimous US Supreme Court struck down a local sign ordinance in Gilbert, AZ, because it treated temporary church signs differently than other signs based on content (Reed v. Town of Gilbert).

    In the Thomas case, defendants say the Supreme Court did not intend to eliminate sign regulations for the sake of free speech.

    You can read the Institute of Free Speech brief here.


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