How legal precedent in the City of St Louis figured into the Austin v. Reagan Supreme Court decision

With the April 21 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of the City of Austin over Reagan National Advertising affirming the constitutionality of the longstanding distinction between content displayed on signs that are located on-premises and off-premises, it is fascinating to note how a 1919 opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in a St. Louis case provided an important legal precedent.

In St. Louis Poster Advertising Co. v. St. Louis, the Supreme Court weighed in on a case that attempted to prevent the City of St. Louis and its officials from enforcing an ordinance regulating the erection of billboards, on the ground that the ordinance was contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment.

Even back in 1919, local governments were struggling with sign control and outdoor advertising. St Louis had passed an ordinance (22,022) in 1905 that required sign permits, established fees (.20/lineal foot) and construction standards, and limited signs to 14 feet in height and 400 square feet in area. The City of St Louis proposed to tear down signs that violated the ordinance. The plaintiff claimed that the limitations imposed by the ordinance would “affect (their) business disastrously”.

The Court addressed the constitutionality issue by stating that “bill-boards properly may be put in a class by themselves and prohibited in the residence districts of a city in the interest of the safety, morality, health, and decency of the community”. The Court further stated in the ruling that, “If the city desired to discourage billboards by a high tax, we know of nothing to hinder, even apart from the right to prohibit them altogether.”

The St. Louis ordinance was upheld.