Advertiser Slams Wisconsin City’s Billboard Regulations

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – A Minnesota advertising company claims in court that an ordinance regulating billboard signs in Wisconsin’s capital city is an unlawful ban on constitutionally protected speech.

Adams Outdoor Advertising filed a lawsuit against the city of Madison and its zoning administrator, Matthew Tucker, on Tuesday in Madison federal court, arguing the ordinance violates First and 14th Amendment rights.

“The city of Madison’s sign control ordinance is facially unconstitutional because it, among other things, bans all new ‘advertising signs’ (such as commercial billboards) and imposes numerous onerous restrictions on all of the existing ‘advertising signs’ in the city without banning or imposing the same restrictions on other types of signs within the city (such as real estate, political, and various non-commercial signs),” the complaint states. “The city imposes disparate treatment on advertising signs versus other signs because it favors the content of those other signs, and it does so in a manner that is not narrowly tailored to advance a compelling governmental interest.” (Parentheses in original.)

The sign-control ordinance at the center of the dispute, specifically sections 31.041 and 31.112(5), “give the city and/or the zoning administrator unbridled and/or boundless discretion to determine whether to permit or deny expressive activity,” according to the complaint.

Adams currently owns 111 billboard structures in Madison that provide commercial and emergency information to the traveling public.

The Minnesota-based advertiser, which has offices in Madison and Kenosha, Wis., says it uses its digital billboards in Wisconsin and around the country to communicate information like Amber Alerts, photos of wanted fugitives and police contact information, emergency messages like weather alerts, notices of community events and “information of great public interest” such as election results and messages from nonprofits.

In June 2016, Madison allegedly denied Adams’ 26 permit applications to make various changes to its signs, citing sections of the ordinance as the basis for the denial.

“Based on its dealings with Adams over the years, including numerous conversations between Adams’ personnel and the city of Madison mayor’s office, the city has a strong bias against and hostility towards Adams and its billboards,” the lawsuit states. “The current city mayor, Paul Soglin, and members of his staff, want to eliminate all of Adams’ billboards in the city.”

Adams says by allowing the zoning administrator to deny its permit applications, the ordinance violates the company’s constitutional rights on its face as it discriminates against signs containing commercial messages because they are subject to more strict scrutiny than noncommercial signs.

“The city’s ordinance, among other things, unconstitutionally prohibits Adams from erecting new billboards, from erecting digital billboards, and from replacing or refurbishing existing billboards throughout the city,” the complaint states. “In other words, the city’s ordinance is designed to eventually completely eliminate an important and protected form of speech based on the content of such speech.”

The billboard company wants a judge to enjoin Madison from applying the ordinance and to void the permit denials. It is represented by Brian Potts of Perkins Coie in Madison.

George Hank, Madison’s director of building inspection, said the city declines to comment on the pending litigation in an email Thursday.

Mayor Soglin is not a party to the lawsuit.

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