Lawsuit attacks TN billboard regulation

William H. Thomas, a Memphis outdoor-advertising operator and attorney, is pushing a lawsuit against the state and federal laws that regulate billboards, reports the Commercial Appeal. The lawsuit comes after years of Thomas defiantly putting up billboards without permits, refusing to take them down when ordered to do so and he even used a sign to attack specific state officials as “corrupt.”

U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla is expected to issue a ruling soon — possibly within the next month — on Thomas’ suit against Commissioner John Schroer and five other officials of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which enforces the state’s 1972 Billboard Regulation and Control Act. The case follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year striking down portions of an Arizona town’s sign ordinance on free-speech grounds, potentially clearing the way for challenges to billboard regulations.

Thomas’ suit has attracted allies among groups such as The Beacon Center of Tennessee, which favors limited government. They say billboard laws, by allowing regulatory exemptions for certain types of messages, impose undue “content-based” regulation of speech.

But advocates of billboard laws contend the rules are needed as a means of protecting not just aesthetics but property values and possibly traffic safety. If suits such as Thomas’ prevail, they say, billboards will proliferate beyond the control of state and local governments.

“Let your imagination run wild,” said William Brinton, attorney for the groups Scenic America and Scenic Tennessee. “If you could put a billboard up anywhere you want … the blight that will be added to the landscapes of America will be something to behold.”

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