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Lawsuit: Huntsville billboard rules violate free speech laws

December 30, 2020 GMT

A northern Alabama city is illegally restricting signs based on their content in violation of free speech laws, according to a lawsuit by a company that operates electronic billboards and other signs in Alabama and Georgia.

In a recent federal lawsuit, New South Media Group says numerous applications for its signs have been denied by the city of Huntsville.

The city’s sign regulations favor some groups over others and are unfair in how they consider the content of the messages that will appear on signs, the company said in the lawsuit.

“The City has been advised that content control by government officials violates free speech protections, including by Plaintiff, but the City has chosen to defy clear decisions of the United States Supreme Court in its regulation of signage,” the lawsuit states.

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As a general practice, the city does not comment on litigation outside of court filings, Huntsville spokeswoman Kelly Schrimser said in an email. The city has not yet responded in detail in the court papers.

The company’s business partners include private companies, but also nonprofit groups and government agencies such as the Alabama Department of Public Health. Alabama and other states nationwide are ramping up efforts to encourage people to become vaccinated against COVID-19, using social media, TV, radio and message boards to reach the public.

“New South has a long and substantial relationship with the Alabama Department of Public Health and has posted a large variety of public health messages on many signs,” the lawsuit states.

City officials denied the company’s application for a sign that would post such governmental messages, the lawsuit states.

Messaging from the state health department is currently focused on COVID-19, including prevention measures, one of New South’s lawyers, E. Adam Webb, said in an email Wednesday.

The company is asking a judge for an order that would stop the city from enforcing its sign regulations.

New South Media Group LLC is a Georgia corporation that owns and leases the signs, Webb said. An affiliated firm, New South Outdoor LLC is an Alabama corporation that manages sales.