Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Judge halts Cincinnati billboard tax after pushback from advertising agencies – October 2018

Cincinnati, OH

After Cincinnati passed a “billboard tax” in June 2018, advertising agencies sued the Ohio city for infringing on their First Amendment rights.

Key Players

Norton Outdoor Advertising is a digital advertising agency based in Cincinnati that specializes in billboards and other large outdoor posters. Norton was the initial group to sue the city for attempting to implement a billboard tax. Lamar Advertising, which also specializes in outdoor digital marketing, is the other agency that sued Cincinnati after the billboard tax was approved. Norton and Lamar are two of largest advertising companies in the city.

Cincinnati is a city of just over 300,000 in southwestern Ohio. The Cincinnati City Council implements ordinances and tax measures, as well as allocating appropriations.

Further Details

At a June 2018 meeting, the City Council enacted a measure that would have increased the cost of billboard advertising within city limits. The measure, known as the “billboard tax” by its detractors, would have added approximately $700,000 of revenue to the city’s budget, which the council was attempting to balance against a $32 million deficit. Altogether, the proposed policy sought to:

  • Increase the fee to obtain outdoor advertising from $70 to $280;
  • Require a certificate of compliance that costs $115.44; and
  • Require annual permits for billboards, rather than requiring them every other year.

Following the measure’s passage, both Norton and Lamar filed lawsuits against the city of Cincinnati. Among other things, the companies and other critics argued that the financial measures unlawfully constrained the exercise of First Amendment rights, including the right to Free Speech.

Cincinnati councilman David Mann said in an interview that the billboard tax was justified because other cities and towns throughout Ohio already have similar policies in place. He added that “The city solicitor said it’s a lawful tax and we implemented it. And those that operate billboards would prefer not to have it.”


Judge grants preliminary injunction

On July 30, 2018, Judge Curt Hartman of the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court temporarily stopped the measure from taking effect. Although he only ruled on the Norton case, his decision extended to the suit brought by Lamar Advertising, as well.

On October 17, 2018, Judge Hartman granted a full preliminary injunction to the advertising agencies, temporarily halting the “billboard tax” from being implemented as the issue goes through the judicial system. Hartman wrote, “the court finds that a substantial showing has been made that [the charges are] a direct tax on the means of engaging in speech…The tax is effectively no different than a tax specifically targeted to being imposed on newsprint or a printing press used to produce newspapers. As such, the court finds a sufficient First Amendment interest has been implicated and likely violated.”

Acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney estimated that, without the revenue from the billboard tax, the city would need to find a way to address a budget shortfall of $837,000.

External References

Judge halts Cincinnati’s billboard tax, says funding ‘pet projects’ no reason to raise taxes,

Judge may decide Friday to halt city billboard tax, leaving $837k hole in Cincinnati’s budget, WCPO Cincinnati

Ohio: Judge suspends Cincinnati billboard “tax”, Business Advocate

Cincinnati City Council website

Prepared by Emma Vahey ‘20

Uploaded to Tracker: November 26, 2018