Appeals Court Strikes Part of Texas Sign Law

     (CN) — A Ron Paul supporter should not have been forced to remove a campaign sign from the side of a highway, a Texas appeals court ruled, based on Supreme Court precedent.
     In the summer of 2011, Auspro Enterprises LP placed a sign on its property touting Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. The sign was located off of State Highway 71 West in the city of Bee Cave.
     Five days later, the Texas Department of Transportation sent Auspro a letter stating that the sign was illegal due to the lack of a permit for it.
     Also, under the Texas Highway Beautification Act, political signs were only permitted 90 days before and 10 days after an election.
     Auspro refused to remove the sign, so TxDOT filed an action for injunctive relief and civil penalties.
     The trial court ruled in TxDOT’s favor, disagreeing with Auspro’s argument that the act violated its free-speech rights.
     Auspro appealed, and the Austin-based Third District Texas Court of Appeals reversed the decision in an Aug. 26 opinion written by Chief Justice Jeff Rose.
     He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court recently invalidated a similar rule regarding campaign signs in Reed v. Town of Gilbert.
     “The high court observed: ‘This type of ordinance may seem like a perfectly rational way to regulate signs, but a clear and firm rule governing content neutrality is an essential means of protecting the freedom of speech, even if laws that might seem entirely reasonable will sometimes be struck down because of their content-based nature,'” Rose quoted in the 29-page opinion.
     Rose disagreed with TxDOT’s argument that the Texas Highway Beautification Act protects Auspro’s rights by allowing election signs to be displayed for 100 days near highways, where they would be banned if they carried other messages.
     “Characterizing such an exemption as ‘favorable’ to protected speech does not change the fact that it is a distinction based on content under Reed,” Rose wrote. “If anything, it exposes the exemption as ‘a paradigmatic example of content-based discrimination.'”
     In addition to reversing the trial court’s ruling, Rose added that the content-based provisions in subchapters B and C of the Texas Highway Beautification Act are unconstitutional and must be severed from the law.
     Rose noted the influence of the Reed decision in other areas of the law.
     “Reed has thus far been cited in cases striking down an anti-panhandling ordinance, an anti-robocall statute, and a law banning ‘ballot selfies,'” he wrote.
     TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer told Courthouse News that the department is “in communication with the AG’s Office and the Federal Highway Administration on the direction forward.”

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