Federal Judge Rules In Favour Of Digital Billboards

Gail Chiasson, North American Editor

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg has dismissed a lawsuit brought by preservation group Scenic America challenging the Department of Transport’s rules allowing digital billboards to be placed along highways.

The judge ruled that the Federal Highway Administration’s 2007 decision that digital billboards do not fall within older lighting bans was legal since it was the agency’s ‘interpretation’ of the law, not a ‘substantive change’.

In a lengthy 29-page opinion, Boasberg said, “Although the Court does not pass judgment on whether digital billboards are a boon or a blight, sightly or unsightly, safe or unsafe, it does conclude that Defendants and Intervenor have the better of the argument here.”

Last year, Scenic America took its fight to federal court, suing DOT and FHWA for ruling in 2007 that digital signs did not violate the Highway Beautification Act. That law, passed by Congress in 1965, aimed to improve safety and preserve natural beauty along the nation’s interstate system and called for federal-state agreements banning ‘flashing, intermittent, or moving’ lights.

But FHWA officials said digital billboards did not fall under that definition, so long as state regulations meet criteria dealing with the duration of billboards’ messages, the transition times between messages, brightness, and the spacing and locations of the signs.

Max Ashburn, Scenic America spokesman, said that his group was disappointed with the judge’s ruling but would consult with its attorneys before deciding whether to appeal the decision.

“This latest ruling just maintains the status quo for now,” said Ashburn. “Bright, constantly changing digital billboards will continue to go up unabated along federal-aid roadways all over the country.”

In a statement, DOT said that it is pleased with the court’s decision and “remains committed to ensuring the highest level of safety standards on our nation’s roads and highways.” In addition, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which intervened in the case on behalf of DOT, said the ruling proves that “digital billboards operate within the federal guidelines.”

U.S. highways and freeways have in recent years seen a huge growth of digital billboards, which bring in many times more revenue than traditional billboards. But some cities have been banning such electronic billboards within their city limits.

Judge Boasberg used a pop culture ‘Mad Men”’ reference to explain why advertisers and preservationists find themselves locked in a battle over new technology: “Many of those [federal-state] agreements have long banned billboards that use ‘flashing, intermittent, or moving’ lights. Advertising science, however, has evolved since the Mad Men era of the 1960s. No longer content to simply mount Don Draper’s slogans along the highway, advertisers now want to reach their audiences via new, digital technology.”

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