Digital billboards spawn lawsuit

Digital billboards spawn lawsuit

Scenic America filed suit against the Federal Highway Administration on Wednesday to contest the agency lifting its ban on digital billboards that cycle through ads. 

Digital billboards have increasingly become a tool for political campaigns hoping to spread their message via mediums other than heavily saturated television. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America sells campaigns on the speed and flexibility digital billboards offer, benefits both presidential and down-ballot campaigns took advantage of last cycle—to Scenic America’s displeasure. 

At the case’s heart, Scenic America argues the FHWA’s 2007 guidance conflicts with lighting standards in the Highway Beautification Act and has helped digital billboards multiply along federal highways.

"For over five years we have pleaded with FHWA to do the right thing and revoke the memorandum," said Mary Tracy, president of Scenic America, in a statement.  "In every instance, they have turned a blind eye to the standards established by the Highway Beautification Act.  These standards were meant to protect all citizens from the trespassing glow of digital billboards flashing commercial advertisements along high-speed roadways.”

According to Scenic America, the medium became popular in 2005, and state transportation officials looked to the FHWA for guidance—at which point the agency caved to the billboard lobby and reversed its ban. The organization holds billboards ruin scenic views, devalue property and distract drivers. 

Georgetown Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation is handling the case—filed in D.C.’s U.S. District Court. The FHWA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Update One: The FHWA declined to comment, as is their policy regarding litigation.

Update Two: The OAAA responded to C&E's request for comment with the following statement:

“Digital billboards are strictly regulated by all levels of government.  In 1996, federal regulators (Federal Highway Administration) said: ‘Changeable message signs are acceptable for off-premise signs, regardless of the type of technology used...’

In 2007, FHWA re-affirmed that policy. The federal agency said states could allow digital billboards as long as they do not flash or feature animation. Forty-three states have taken steps to allow digital billboards.  

Digital billboard ads are static, with tight controls on lighting and display times.”

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