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Billboard law violates free speech, Oregon high court says

By The Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. — The state's ability to prevent more billboards from sprouting up along highways was dealt a blow yesterday when the Oregon Supreme Court said a state billboard-regulation law violates constitutional free-speech protections.

Officials later said the ruling by the state's highest court could result in the state's losing more than $25 million a year in federal highway funding and open the way for more billboards to be placed along Oregon's highways.

"Will this lead to a proliferation of billboards? Our answer is, it might," said Kevin Neely of the Oregon attorney general's office.

However, a lawyer for a southern Oregon company that had challenged Oregon's restrictions hailed the ruling as a victory for free expression because it removes limits on what messages billboards can contain.

The state Supreme Court ruling took aim at a key part of Oregon's 1971 law that limits billboards outside commercial or industrial areas that advertise something not available on the premises.

For example, a farm can erect a highway sign advertising that it has a fruit stand, but the farm must obtain a state permit to put up a sign saying that there's a fast-food restaurant at the next exit.

The Supreme Court found that restriction unconstitutional because "it prohibits certain speech based on its content."

"The state may not enact restrictions that focus on the content of the speech, and this restriction does just that," the court said in an opinion written by Justice Thomas Balmer.

Yesterday's ruling came in a case that began more than a decade ago when the state ordered a billboard company to remove several signs in southern Oregon.

Alan Herson, a Jacksonville lawyer who represented the company, had argued that the state law unconstitutionally limits what people can say on a sign.

"This is a solid victory for the people of Oregon," Herson said of yesterday's decision. "Before today's ruling, state employees could restrict the message on the sign. Now they can't restrict speech."

The 1965 federal Highway Beautification Act limits billboards along major highways in scenic and rural areas, and it also requires states to adopt implementing legislation or face losing 10% of their federal highway funds.

Neely said the state's lawyers were reviewing whether the court's decision to overturn part of the law would mean that Oregon could lose some of its federal highway funds.

Oregon's 1971 law was passed to comply with the federal law, but went beyond it - limiting billboards on all state highways, prohibiting them in scenic areas and capping the overall number of billboards at about 2,000 by requiring permits for signs advertising something not available on the premises.

"We are going to have to work with the federal government to determine what impact this ruling will have on a receipt of federal highway dollars," he said.

In siding with Herson on the free-speech issue, the court also decided to eliminate the permit process the state had used to limit the number of billboards along highways to prevent the signs from crowding roadside views across the state.

Eliminating that process means state transportation officials likely will have to enforce separate safety requirements over the signs, including rules that regulate the size and spacing of highway signs, on an individual basis, he said.

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