In the 2022 term of the Supreme Court, the case of City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Texas held particular interest for the sign industry and municipalities alike. At stake was the distinction between off-premise and on-premise signage, as ISA states in their amicus brief “In City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Texas, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had found in August 2020 that Austin’s sign ordinance was in violation of the Reed v. Town of Gilbert decision. The city’s sign ordinance allowed on-premises digital signs but prohibited digital billboards. The 5th Circuit decided that the difference in the two types of signs was content-based and therefore unconstitutional.”
The impact of this decision if it had been upheld by the Supreme Court would have been quite monumental for sign codes across the United States, and it would have impacted future signs greatly and perhaps present signs as well. In this blog we breakdown the differences between on-premise and off-premise signage, content-based vs location-based distinctions, the amicus brief submitted by ISA, and the ramifications at stake of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold this historic distinction.
On-Premise vs Off-Premise Signage
On-Premise Signage is defined as signage related to the goods and services offered at the property or location at which it is displayed, such as store names, theater marquees, building directories, monument signs, POP banners, etc.
Off-Premise Signage is defined as a sign not directly associated with the property or location at which it is displayed; e.g. outdoor advertising or event announcements displayed at locations unaffiliated with the product or event that is the subject of the sign.
Traditionally off-premise signage includes billboards
Content-Based vs Location-Based
The crux of the argument at-hand was whether sign policy for on-premise signage vs off-premise signage was determined by distinguishing the two by their content or their location.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals believed the distinction to be simply content based, which means only the nature of the messages the signs displayed would be enough to differentiate between these two sign types.
However historically the location of the signs themselves played a significant part of this distinction, as is evident in the name itself: “off-premise signage” as opposed to “on-premise signage”.
ISA Joins Chambers of Commerce and Other Business Orgs with Amicus Brief
The International Sign Association, of which Ortwein Sign is a member through our regional Mid-South Sign Association, submitted a brief supporting the traditional view of on-premise vs off-premise signage.
Noting the unique diaspora of co-signers to the brief, the ISA states in the brief, “The sign industry and scenic organizations often have opposing viewpoints when it comes to the regulation of on-premise signs, but we are strange bedfellows when it comes to our mutual support of maintaining the traditional regulatory distinction of on-premise and off-premise signs.”
Stakes of this SCOTUS Decision
Though the Supreme Court did indeed uphold the plaintiff’s view distinguishing signage by its location and not its content, if it had not the results would have been chaotic. In the majority of municipalities in America, sign code has been developed with the belief that on-premise and off-premise signage should be judged differently.
Though it varies by municipality, these codes determine size variation, sign type, placement, and more. With the removal of this distinction the codes would in many places need to be rewritten.
Likewise it’s quite likely that no distinction would have been allowed anymore for these sign types, and municipalities would either have needed to get creative with how to distinguish these signs, for fear of further court action, or they would have had to bow to the potential push and pull by entities who would use the newly impacted sign codes and laws to their advantage.
Again it’s important to note that this is not what occurred; however, it’s also important to keep in mind what such changes could have allowed.
Ultimately though the SCOTUS judgment was a decision to maintain the status quo, there will undoubtedly be a time in the future when court decisions at a local, state, and federal level can, and will, impact current sign codes. What this means for the future is unclear presently; however, we appreciate the ISA’s effective representation for those of us in the sign industry.