Earlier this month, the City of Madison fended off a long-simmering legal challenge to its sign ordinances.
The lawsuit was filed by Adams Outdoor Advertising, which owns more than seven dozen billboards locally. The suit takes issue with the city’s restrictions on the height, placement and type of allowable billboards.
First filed in 2017, the lawsuit was dismissed by a panel of three judges on the seventh circuit court of appeals.
I spoke with Michael Haas, city attorney for Madison.
“That’s really what their lawsuit was about, it was a broad challenge to the ordinance on its face and as it was applied to the permits that Adams had applied for,” Haas said.
This isn’t the first time that Adams and the City of Madison have come to blows.
The Wisconsin State Journal reports the conflict began in 1989, when the City of Madison amended the already complex sign ordinances to prohibit the construction of new advertising billboards, and restricting existing billboards to specific sizes. These ordinances were expanded in 2009 to not allow digital billboards.
The city says the goal is to make sure drivers aren’t distracted and that their view isn’t obstructed. Another goal is to promote the city’s aesthetic value by keeping the public right-of-way clear.
These amendments have been a point of contention for Adams Outdoor Advertising, which first filed suit against the City of Madison soon after the ordinances were adopted, on the grounds that they impose unconstitutional restrictions on advertising signs, but do not apply similar restrictions to construction or voting signs.
Adams’ first lawsuit was struck down in 1993. Although the city has different provisions for voting and construction signs, they are still expected to follow the same basic requirements of keeping the public right-of-way clear. But that didn’t stop the company from continuing to fight against the ordinances as the years went by.
The most recent lawsuit filed by Adams against the City of Madison was filed in 2017, after the city rejected 25 out of 26 permit applications to modify the size and height of existing billboards and build digital billboards, which violate the city’s ordinances. Adams alleged that constituted unfair discrimination, and their first amendment rights were being violated.
Fast forward to April of 2020.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, stating that no constitutional violations exist in Madison’s sign ordinances. The judge further stated that if Madison wants to turn Capitol Square into Times Square, that is a right reserved for the city to make. Adams took the ruling to the seventh circuit court of appeals.
Which takes us to earlier this month, when a panel of three judges on the seventh circuit sided with the City of Madison and dismissed Adams’ lawsuit. The panel also barred Adams from filing another suit on the same issue.
The panel also affirmed the City of Madison’s right to regulate and prohibit advertising signage and digital billboards.
This new precedent comes from a recent ruling between the Reagan National Advertising company and the City of Austin, which cleared up previous legal uncertainty surrounding regulation of signs as a form of free speech.
So what comes next?
For Adams, there are a couple options available. The company could appeal to the full body of the seventh circuit.
Haas says Adams could also bring the lawsuit to the US Supreme Court.
Julie Johnson, a spokesperson for Adams Outdoor Activities, stated that “Adams is disappointed by the court’s decision and is currently evaluating next steps.”
Reporting for WORT, I’m Erin Ashley.
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