billboards

Judge voids TN billboard regulation law

U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla of Memphis has declared Tennessee’s Billboard Regulation and Control Act unconstitutional, invalidating a law that has governed outdoor advertising in the state since 1972, reports the Commercial Appeal.

The ruling Friday came down on the side of Memphis billboard operator William H. Thomas Jr., who had alleged in a lawsuit that Tennessee Department of Transportation officials violated his constitutional rights in their efforts to remove a sign he constructed at the Interstate 40-240 interchange in East Memphis despite being denied a permit for it.

Although local governments often regulate billboards through zoning ordinances, McCalla’s decision potentially opens up vast areas of the state to unfettered proliferation of outdoor signs along highways. It also could result in a 10 percent cut in federal highway funds to Tennessee because the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 requires states to regulate billboards to federal standards.

The ruling follows a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down portions of an Arizona town’s sign ordinance on free-speech grounds, a case cited by McCalla. With the latest decision, similar litigation is likely to be lodged against other states’ billboard laws, say advocates of controls on outdoor advertising.

“It will also have an impact … far beyond Tennessee,” said William Brinton, an attorney who represented Scenic America, Scenic Tennessee and other groups seeking to preserve the billboard regulation law.

Thomas’ suit attracted allies among limited-government groups such as The Beacon Center of Tennessee, which say that billboard laws, by allowing regulatory exemptions for certain types of messages, impose undue “content-based” regulation of speech.

But advocates of billboard laws say the rules are needed as a means of protecting not just aesthetics but property values and possibly traffic safety.

Lawsuit attacks TN billboard regulation

William H. Thomas, a Memphis outdoor-advertising operator and attorney, is pushing a lawsuit against the state and federal laws that regulate billboards, reports the Commercial Appeal. The lawsuit comes after years of Thomas defiantly putting up billboards without permits, refusing to take them down when ordered to do so and he even used a sign to attack specific state officials as “corrupt.”

U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla is expected to issue a ruling soon — possibly within the next month — on Thomas’ suit against Commissioner John Schroer and five other officials of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which enforces the state’s 1972 Billboard Regulation and Control Act. The case follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year striking down portions of an Arizona town’s sign ordinance on free-speech grounds, potentially clearing the way for challenges to billboard regulations.

Thomas’ suit has attracted allies among groups such as The Beacon Center of Tennessee, which favors limited government. They say billboard laws, by allowing regulatory exemptions for certain types of messages, impose undue “content-based” regulation of speech.

But advocates of billboard laws contend the rules are needed as a means of protecting not just aesthetics but property values and possibly traffic safety. If suits such as Thomas’ prevail, they say, billboards will proliferate beyond the control of state and local governments.

“Let your imagination run wild,” said William Brinton, attorney for the groups Scenic America and Scenic Tennessee. “If you could put a billboard up anywhere you want … the blight that will be added to the landscapes of America will be something to behold.”