Billboard Company Lawsuits: They Just Keep Coming

Lamar digital billboard in Wisconsin.  The company currently has no digital signs in Los Angeles

Lamar digital billboard in Wisconsin. The company currently has no digital signs in Los Angeles

Since 2002, when Los Angeles enacted a ban on new billboards, sign companies and property owners have filed dozens of lawsuits claiming that the ban violates their First Amendment rights. And despite the fact that courts have repeatedly held the ban to be constitutional, the lawsuits keep coming.

The latest was filed by Lamar Advertising, which is suing the city over the denial of a permit for a full-size digital billboard on busy Lincoln Blvd. at the edge of Marina Del Rey. The lawsuit filed in L.A. County Superior Court follows another filed last spring that seeks to force the city to issue permits for 45 digital billboards over a wide area of the city.

Same old, same old? Not exactly. Lamar, a national billboard company headquartered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was denied for a permit for a 14 ft. x 48 ft. digital sign at 4680 Lincoln Blvd., which is the standard size of a full-size billboard. That wasn’t unusual, since the city also denied permits for the other 45 digital billboards that are the subject of the first lawsuit. What’s different is that the permit application for the Lincoln Blvd. billboard specified the sign as “non-commercial.”

There is no such category in the L.A. sign code. Signs are classified either as “on-site,” meaning signs related to the business at that particular site, or “off-site,” meaning signs advertising goods and services sold or activities conducted elsewhere. In simple terms, the sign saying “Mel’s Hardware” on the local hardware store is an on-site sign while the billboard in the parking lot advertising McDonald’s or Verizon or Budweiser is an off-site sign.

New off-site signs, with limited exceptions, are banned in Los Angeles, although ones existing before the ban took effect in 2002 are allowed to remain as long as they aren’t altered.

So what’s the point of applying for a permit for a “non-commercial” sign that in all other respects would be identical to a digital billboard and clearly prohibited? The lawsuit claims that the language of the off-site sign ban applies only to “commercial” signs and that legal precedent established by the courts prohibits government from discriminating between commercial and non-commercial speech.

It remains to be seen whether a judge is impressed by Lamar’s arguments, which appear to rely on several questionable assumptions.

An obvious question, though, is why Lamar would go to the considerable expense of putting up a full-size digital billboard only to display public service messages or some other sort of non-commercial content. The answer is equally obvious. Applying for a permit for a “non-commercial” digital sign may be a legal ploy intended to find a weakness in the sign code that will ultimately allow a new digital billboard free to show ads for movies, fast food, cars, and other products and services.

Another possibility is that the lawsuit is intended as leverage to negotiate a settlement with the city that will allow the company to put up digital billboards. In fact, Lamar has lobbied city officials to make some kind of deal to allow new billboards in exchange for taking down the company’s 3,000-plus conventional signs.

Legislation to the end was even introduced in the City Council, by former Councilman Richard Alarcon, but it never reached the stage of a public hearing.

The threat of expensive, drawn-out litigation as a strategy to force legislative action to get signs not currently allowed by code isn’t foreign to Lamar and other billboard companies. Most notoriously, former City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo sold the City Council on the 2006 deal to allow Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor to put up more than 800 digital billboards at least partly on the grounds that the city would be facing years of financially-onerous litigation if it didn’t make the deal.

That’s not exactly an idle threat, because the billboard companies typically hire high-powered legal talent to represent them, and can afford to pursue cases through all possible avenues. For example, Lamar is represented both in the courtroom and in its City Hall lobbying by Steptoe & Johnson, a Century City law firm with both national and international offices.

Dennis Hathaway

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