Townships targeted in First Amendment billboard cases

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Two Ohio outdoor advertising firms will test the limits of both a state statute and a recent U.S. Supreme Court case after filing lawsuits in federal court earlier this month over township billboard regulations.

Darke County companies Summit Locations, LLC and Huntington Outdoors, LLC sued Bath and Coventry Townships in Summit County and Sheffield Township in Lorain County, claiming the townships’ zoning resolutions – which forbid signs that advertise businesses conducted or products or services sold away from the property where the signs are located – violate a state code section that generally permits billboards on land in townships if the land is zoned for industry, business or agriculture. They also argue that a ban on off-premises signs is a violation of their First Amendment rights.

The Ohio Revised Code provision in question, Section 519.20, permits outdoor advertising in areas not zoned for residential use but has been construed by the courts to still allow for the regulation of outdoor signs like billboards. One appellate court, in 2008, struck down a township complete ban on billboards, finding that the township prohibition impermissibly conflicted with the Revised Code section.

That 2008 Ohio appellate decision will be tested in this case. More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Austin, Texas’ ban on off-premises signage, affirming that the First Amendment allows for distinctions between content displayed on signs located on-premises and off-premises when those distinctions are viewpoint-neutral and “do not single out any topic or subject matter for differential treatment.” As such, the 6-3 court held that Austin’s regulation distinguishing between signs “that promote ideas, products, or services located elsewhere and those that promote or identify things located onsite” were rooted in history and reasonable. And multiple Ohio courts have found that despite the text of R.C. 519.20, townships may place reasonable restrictions on billboard signage. We imagine the townships here will argue that the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval on on-premises and off-premises regulatory distinctions makes the townships’ similar distinctions just as reasonable under the state law.

Will the decision in the Austin case be persuasive here? Time will tell. The defendant townships have not yet responded to the lawsuits in court. But we’ll monitor the cases for you and report back here, especially as they can have fairly substantial ramifications on township zoning resolutions that seek to limit the reach of billboard signage.

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