Adams Outdoor Advertising Limited Partnership v. City of Madison, Wisconsin, No. 20-1670 (7th Cir. 2023)Annotate this Case
Adams Outdoor Advertising owns billboards throughout Wisconsin, including 90 in Madison. Madison’s sign-control ordinance comprehensively regulates “advertising signs,” to promote traffic safety and aesthetics. The ordinance defines an “advertising sign” as any sign advertising or directing attention to a business, service, or product offered offsite. In 1989, Madison banned the construction of new advertising signs. Existing billboards were allowed to remain but cannot be modified or reconstructed without a permit and are subject to size, height, setback, and other restrictions. In 2009, Madison prohibited digital displays; in 2017, the definition of “advertising sign” was amended to remove prior references to noncommercial speech. As amended, the term “advertising sign” is limited to off-premises signs bearing commercial messages.
Following the Supreme Court’s 2015 “Reed” decision, Adams argued that any ordinance treating off-premises signs less favorably than other signs is a content-based restriction on speech and thus is unconstitutional unless it passes the high bar of strict scrutiny. The judge applied intermediate scrutiny and rejected the First Amendment challenge. The Supreme Court subsequently clarified that nothing in Reed altered its earlier precedents applying intermediate scrutiny to billboard ordinances and upholding on-/off-premises sign distinctions as ordinary content-neutral “time, place, or manner” speech restrictions. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit.