Billboards present constitutional lawyers wiith all sorts of challenges. Politicians like to ban them when they advertise taboo subjects. They sometimes ban them when they are too large and distracting to drivers. They ban them for all sorts of reasons.
These retsrictions are then challeneged in the courts. The Courts sometimes strike the restrictions down as unreasonable restraints on speech. Sometimes, they uphold them. The American law reports are filled with cases dealing with billboard restrictions. Law school exams in the United States almost always have a question on some billboard restriction.
Now this story about a study by a UofA Psychology PhD student Michelle Chan shows that negative contents in billboards is more distracting than postitive contents. So, for example, words like "war", "cancer", and "abuse" could dangeroulsy distract drivers, while words "love, happy, [and] excitement", drivers were reasonably safe in their driving.
At the end of the story (and I am not sure if her policy recommendations are in her study or just in the interviews), we get:
Chan believes jurisdictions in Canada need to adopt rules that crack down on the content of billboards, similar to laws already in place in Australia.
This recommendation, of course, raises a whole new set of free speech considerations. This is no longer content restrictions based on subject-matter (i.e. tobaco, alcohol, political, sexually suggestive), or even size/time/place/manner. This is a restriction based on the emotional content (assuming I understood her recommendation properly).
As an aside, while Australia may be able to restrict the content of their billboards, it is not clear that they even have free speech rights in the same way we (or the Americans) do.
Now assuming I understood the restriction proposal properly, this poses a different dimension of regulation into question. I am not sure how the courts and the law would deal with this in Canada. Suppose the state wishes to put up a public service announcement on a billboard that says "Speeding Causes Death". This would be out under the proposal, putting aside that the state could exempt itself from any restrictions. On the other hand, "Drive Safely for your Loved Ones" could pass.
So, the same subject-matter might be restricted not based on the subject-matter content but the emotional content. Would this raise free speech concerns? Would the study (and presumably others) be sufficient to bring a section 1 defense justifying the restrictions? Would it matter if the billboards were political or commercial? What if the advertisement was religious in nature and intentionally meant to be negative (e.g. The end is near)?
I have no idea how this would turn out. But, this would definitely make for a great law school exam.