Legal Wars: U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Major Challenge To California Billboard Regulation

Three days after handing down a campaign finance decision that rocked the political world, the U.S. Supreme Court handed anti-billboard activists a major victory by refusing to review a lower court’s ruling that California could legally bar off-site commercial advertising along sections of the state’s freeways and highways.

The case involved a long-running legal challenge to the state’s Outdoor Advertising Act, which prohibits off-site advertising along state highways and freeways classified as landscaped. See article in San Jose Mercury News.

Late last year the Supreme Court also refused to review an appellate court decision that denied a sign company’s challenge to the constitutionality of the off-site sign ban in the city of Los Angeles.  By deciding not to take up these cases, the Supreme Court appears to be rejecting the claim made  in numerous sign company lawsuits that limits on commercial speech such as off-site sign bans are unconstitutional infringements of the 1st Amendment right to free speech.

In the local case, Metrolights v. City of Los Angeles, the New York-based company that began putting up movie-poster style billboards more than five years ago without getting any permits also claimed that the city’s sign ban also violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection because the city allowed signs of similar type in its bus shelters and other items of street furniture.  See Supreme Court Won’t Hear Metrolights Appeal.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 1981 case from San Diego that governments could limit or even ban off-site advertising altogether, as long as it was done within a prescribed manner.  That ruling still stands, but hasn’t stopped litigious sign companies from repeatedly suing to overturn billboard bans in all parts of the country.

Dennis Hathaway

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