Photo: Corrie Schaffeld, Cincinnati Business Courier

“The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a tax that Cincinnati City Council put on billboards violated the First Amendment, nullifying it.

After council approved the tax in 2018 aiming to raise $709,000, it never went into effect while the case wound its way through the courts.

The justices reversed a decision by the Hamilton County Appellate Court made in 2020 upholding the imposition of the tax. The court agreed with former Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Curt Hartman, who also believed the tax was unconstitutional, and his successor on the case, Common Pleas Judge Thomas Heekin.

Billboard companies Lamar Advertising and Norton Outdoor Advertising sued the city two years ago after the 7% tax on outdoor billboards was passed, saying it was unconstitutional based on the First Amendment right to free speech and violated the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause and equal protection clauses. The city had approved the tax in order to balance the fiscal year 2019 budget.

‘Even if the city passed the tax ordinance without a motive to censor billboard operators, the threat of overt censorship, self-censorship, or undetectable censorship created by the tax impermissibly infringes on rights protected by the First Amendment,’ wrote Justice Sharon Kennedy. ‘The city’s billboard tax resembles the type of taxes that were a cause of the American Revolution: taxes that curtail the amount of revenue raised by the press through advertisements and tend to directly restrict the circulation of protected expression.’

The court noted that the city exempted all other types of outdoor advertising — ‘potentially thousands’ — from the tax…””

— Chris Wetterich, Cincinnati Business Courier

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