ACLU Says Rhode Island Billboard Restrictions Violate Free Speech

November 21, 2005 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit challenging state laws and regulations that allow billboard signs on buildings near highways only if the sign promotes an activity taking place on the property. The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Anthony Joseph Vono and his business, Specialty Promotions, which have been cited by the state Department of Transportation for having a billboard sign that advertises “off premises activity.”

“The issue in this case is not whether billboards are good or bad, but whether the state should have the right to decide what a particular billboard sign can say,” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown. “We think the simple answer to that should be ‘no.’”

The building in which Vono’s business operates, on 101 Poe Street in Providence, includes a roof sign, which is visible on I-95 North shortly before the I-195 split. Earlier this year, when the sign was advertising the non-profit agency Casey Family Services, Vono was notified by DOT that he had to take it down because it advertised “an activity not occurring on the property where it is located.”

The ACLU lawsuit, filed by volunteer attorney John W. Dineen, raises a number of legal challenges to the state laws and regulations that the DOT is citing to support its position. The ACLU argues that the DOT’s distinction between on-premises and off-premises messages “contravenes [Vono’s] First Amendment right to be free from content-based regulation of his speech.” The ACLU further argues that this distinction improperly disadvantages “non-commercial and political speech, which would generally fall in the off-premises category, more severely than commercial speech.”

“The government certainly can regulate safety issues on highways,” said Dineen. “But how can it justify telling Mr. Vono he has to change the message if he wants to keep his sign?” Dineen noted that Vono previously had a “Carcieri for Governor” sign on the same billboard, and it was displayed without incident.

The lawsuit also claims that the DOT has been “inconsistent and arbitrary in its application and enforcement of the rules.” The lawsuit seeks a court order striking down the applicable provisions that make this distinction.

The ACLU’s Brown said that Vono’s sign is far from the only one carrying off-premises advertising.

“One need only take a short ride along any of Rhode Island’s major highways to see that Mr. Vono has been singled out for arbitrary treatment,” said Brown.

For a copy of the complaint, go to:

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