Some of the toughest questions in First Amendment law are no farther away than your local stretch of interstate highway, says University of Florida law professor Michael Allan Wolf.
“From ads for adult entertainment to messages put up by white supremacist groups, Florida billboards have been the subject of some controversial disputes,” said Wolf, who holds the Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law at UF’s Levin College of Law. “Just take a drive up and down Interstate 75 and you can find all sorts of interesting First Amendment questions.”
Wolf plans to bring together leaders in the outdoor advertising industry and prominent billboard opponents on Feb. 11 to address the scenic benefits and constitutional pitfalls of laws regulating roadside signs. The event, held at the University of Florida Hilton Hotel and Conference Center, will be the fourth installment in the law school’s Richard E. Nelson Symposium series.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Highway Beautification Act, a federal law intended to curb the spread of billboards along interstate highways – but regulation of billboards is still a topic of heated debate between advertisers and government officials.
In Florida alone, recent ads for strip clubs and billboards put up by white supremacist groups have created controversy for several local governments. There is a campaign to amend the state constitution to restrict billboard advertising. And the record hurricane season of 2004 has left local governments and outdoor advertisers at odds over the rebuilding of signs destroyed in the storms.
“Many of the destroyed signs were old billboards that were ‘grandfathered in’ when current regulations were passed,” Wolf said. “These are billboards that couldn’t be built under the rules we have in place today. But the owners of those signs are anxious to repair and rebuild without new regulations.”
There is also some concern over the growing role of media conglomerates in outdoor advertising, Wolf said.
“A large share of the billboards now in existence are owned by a few large media companies such as ClearChannel or Viacom,” said Wolf. “Some critics have argued that this consolidation violates anti-trust laws.”
The Nelson Symposium features speakers from all sides of the billboard-regulation debate, including:
- Jacksonville attorney William Brinton, who has represented local governments in a number of cases against outdoor advertisers.
- Nancy Fletcher, president and CEO of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America
- Harvard University law professor Charles M. Haar, who will deliver an address titled “The Highway Beautification Act: Looking Back After 40 Years.”
- Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Christopher Leslie, who will speak on antitrust issues in the outdoor advertising industry.
- Michael Hoefges, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who will speak on billboards and commercial speech.
- Randall Thornton, county attorney for Sumter County, recently the location of some highly controversial outdoor ads.
- Miami attorney Tom Julin, who specializes in First Amendment cases.
- South Carolina attorney Marguerite Williams, who has represented outdoor advertising companies in anti-trust cases.
The conference begins at 8:30 a.m. at the Hilton, and lasts until 4:30 p.m. with a lunch break. Media coverage is invited. Journalists interested in attending the conference should contact Barbara DeVoe, director of conference planning at the Levin College of Law, at 352-392-8070.
The Nelson Symposium is held in honor of Richard E. Nelson, who served as county attorney for Sarasota County for 30 years. Nelson and his wife, Jane, donated $1 million to the law school to establish the Nelson Chair in Local Government Law. The Nelsons’ support of the Environmental and Land Use Law Program has played a key role in its recent recognition as one of the top 20 such programs in the country.
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