First Amendment challenges by billboard companies and other sign owners to local sign regulations have become a frequent occurrence in the past thirty years. The stakes are high for both commercial sign owners and local governments. Sign control has emerged as an important front in the environmental protection movement, as it focuses on the visual or scenic quality of the environment. Courts have begun to recognize and accept local governments’ interest in controlling the proliferation of signage as part of their efforts to improve environmental quality, but courts have applied First Amendment doctrine in an inconsistent manner. The courts’ inconsistent treatment of the constitutional requirement of content neutrality has undermined state and local efforts to maintain aesthetic environments free from noxious signage. One of the consequences of this inconsistency is a false sense of security among sign regulators that their content-based regulations are somehow consistent with the First Amendment. This Note argues in favor of a strict approach to content neutrality, placing a greater burden on sign regulators to develop the most content-neutral ordinances possible. The proposed approach would beat billboard companies and sign owners at their own litigation game, limiting governments’ exposure to litigation and lessening the risk of sign regulations being invalidated, which in turn denigrates aesthetic quality. Furthermore, the recommended approach would reaffirm the First Amendment rights of sign owners while ensuring that regulatory bodies have sufficient guidance and encounter less risk in ensuring aesthetic environmental protection.
Brian J. Connolly,
Environmental Aesthetics and Free Speech: Toward a Consistent Content Neutrality Standard for Outdoor Sign Regulation ,
Mich. J. Envtl. & Admin. L.
Available at: http://repository.law.umich.edu/mjeal/vol2/iss1/4