Appellate Court Justices Appear Skeptical of Arguments That L.A.’s Ban on Off-site and Supergraphic Signs is Unconstitutional

Lady Justice 1Do exceptions to the city’s nine-year old ban on off-site and supergraphic signs allow it to unconstitutionally discriminate against certain outdoor advertisers?  Last year, a U.S. District Court judge said yes, but on Wednesday a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals seemed to question that interpretation.

The justices heard oral arguments in the city’s appeal of the district court ruling in the lawsuit by World Wide Rush, a Pennsylvania company cited for erecting supergraphic signs on a number of buildings.  Rex Heinke, the attorney representing World Wide Rush, argued that the sign ban’s exceptions for special sign districts and areas governed by specific plans and approved development agreements essentially gives city officials “unfettered discretion”  to allow one company to put up outdoor ads but deny the same rights to another.

In support of this argument, he cited the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment District specific plan, where the owner of Staples Center and L.A. Live has been allowed to erect numerous off-site and supergraphic signs, and the 15th Street sign district, where Clear Channel was allowed to erect two double-faced billboards on an MTA bus lot next to the 10 freeway.

Justice Kim Wardlaw replied that in adopting an ordinance that allows areas where off-site signs can be erected the city didn’t appear to be making decisions based on the actual content of signs, which would be unconstitutional, but exercising its legitimate legislative power.  “If you don’t like what they’re (the city council) doing, you should make sure they don’t get re-elected,” she said.

Justice Steven Reinhardt suggested to Heinke that if a company believed the sign districts and specific plan areas were established without any standards  to ensure against unconstitutional discrimination, the remedy would be to attack the establishment of those areas, not the sign ordinance itself.   Justice Stephen Trott also questioned Heinke’s arguments, saying that in adopting the sign ordinance the city council was exercising its legitimate powers and that the ordinance didn’t give discretion to approve signs to any city official.

The panel is expected to render a decision sometime in the coming months.

Dennis Hathaway

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