PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A state law restricting the content of highway billboards in Rhode Island is unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled.
Anthony Joseph Vono, who designs promotional materials, has advertised for commercial and noncommercial clients on a billboard above his business, Specialty Promotions. But in 2005, the state transportation department ordered him to remove the signs, citing a law banning billboards near a highway if they advertise for a business or activity not located on the same property.
U.S. District Judge William Smith said in his Jan. 27 ruling that the provision violated Vono's free-speech rights because it regulated signs on the basis of their messages and content.
"Even distinguishing one type of commercial advertising from another involves the government in checking out the message on your sign and analyzing that and deciding whether that's OK or not," said John Dineen, a volunteer lawyer for the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued on Vono's behalf in 2005.
"That can get the government into kind of a quicksand of analyzing messages," he said.
The department had permitted Vono to display billboards while the case was pending, Dineen said.
Michael Healey, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, which represented the transportation department, had no immediate comment on the ruling.