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You are now free to visually blight Texas highways

WTF?

Opponents of billboards and other signs along Texas roadways reacted on Monday with dismay to an appeals court decision striking down significant portions of the Texas Highway Beautification Act, saying the ruling could lead to a litany of signs along federally funded highways.

The Third District Court of Appeals in Austin issued the decision on the state law – cheered as the linchpin of Texas’ scenic roadway efforts – because the 42-year-old act restricts free speech.

Scenic Texas, a statewide group that has fought watering down Texas billboard laws, is urging the Texas Department of Transportation – the defendant in the current case – and state officials to appeal.

“What it appears to do is strip away TxDOT’s authority to regulate outdoor advertising as they have been doing it for the last 40 years,” said Margaret Lloyd, a Galveston resident and vice president of Scenic Texas. “We are concerned that authority has been removed completely.”

The ruling came late last week in a case regarding a 2011 sign erected to support Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. Auspro Enterprises placed the sign on its property along Texas 71.

[…]

TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said the agency is reviewing the ruling and consulting with the Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Highway Administration.

“TxDOT does not regulate or restrict content, as TxDOT has regulations that provide protection for freedom of speech,” Beyer said in a statement. “Texas has the most beautiful roadways in the nation, and as such TxDOT only wishes to further maintain the safety to the traveling public without restricting peoples’ constitutional rights.”

Citing other restrictions on signs and previous court rulings, the appeals court struck down subchapters B and C of the beautification act, which are the centerpiece of the law. Essentially, the court ruled Texas’ law relies on exemptions that differ based on the content of the sign, which is unconstitutional.

“The Texas Act, as both (TxDOT) and the Texas Supreme Court have acknowledged, on its face draws distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys,” appeals court Chief Justice Jeff Rose wrote.

Rather than void parts related to political speech, as TxDOT sought during the case, the appeals court said it cannot sever one type of sign from another and deemed TxDOT’s total authority of signs unconstitutional.

“We strongly disagree with the interpretation the court has come up with,” said Anne Culver, president of Scenic Houston, a local version of the statewide group.

A copy of the ruling is here. It cites a recent SCOTUS case ( Reed v. Town of Gilbert), which the judges say “has arguably transformed First Amendment free-speech jurisprudence”. If that’s so, I don’t care for it, because I think this ruling, which struck down a law that had been in place with no objections for over 40 years, is too broad. Beyond the effect at the state level, this could affect local billboard ordinance as well. Surely we don’t want to go back to the ugly old days in Houston, right? Scenic Texas said in a post on Facebook that they will encourage the AG to appeal this ruling. This is one time where I agree with that advice. Swamplot and the Chron editorial board have more.

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