Los Angeles has been trying to shed its label as the country’s billboard capital, but Clear Channel and other companies pushing to put up new digital billboards got a major boost this week when a Superior Court judge ruled that the city’s ban on new off-site signs violates the free speech guarantee of the California state constitution.
The ruling came in a lawsuit by Lamar Advertising over the city’s denial of permits for 45 new digital billboards. However, it could potentially affect billboards owned by all the major sign companies, including the 99 digital billboards belonging to Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor that have been turned off by court order for more than a year.
The ruling by Judge Luis Lavin comes as a surprise to those who thought that several federal appeals court rulings over the past five years had firmly established the city’s right to ban new off-site signs in the interests of traffic safety and visual aesthetics. While the Judge acknowledged those rulings by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, he said he wasn’t bound by them.
In a 17-page ruling, Lavin said that the California constitution’s speech protections are broader than those of the First Amendment. He said that the city’s ban on signs with off-site advertising violates the following section of the state constitution: “Every person may freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of this right. A law may not restrain or abridge liberty of speech or press.”
Referring to the federal court rulings upholding the ban, Lavin said, “The court is neither required nor inclined to follow the Ninth Circuit’s decisions in this case, especially as they relate to the Ban’s validity under the California Constitution.”
Beginning in the past decade, sign companies wanting to put up new billboards and other types of commercial advertising signs repeatedly sued the city, claiming that the off-site sign ban approved by the City Council in 2002 was an infringement upon their free speech rights. One of these lawsuits even cited the California constitution, but the Ninth Circuit ruled in that case and others that the city could ban the signs to enhance traffic safety and the visual appearance of the city.
However, Judge Lavin said in his ruling that the city could not make a distinction between a sign advertising a business at the sign’s location and a sign advertising a product or service available elsewhere, which is typical of billboards, supergraphic signs, and other types of commercial advertising.
“…the content of the displayed message is irrelevant to its effect on traffic safety and esthetics,” he concluded, adding that the city had failed to offer any evidence that off-site signs contribute to traffic problems and detract from the city’s aesthetic appeal while on-site and non-commercial signs do not.
The judge noted that Lamar submitted evidence that the city has authorized more than 15,000 signs displaying off-site commercial content since 2001. This includes signs in bus shelters and other items of street furniture, banners on city light standards, and ads on the sides of city buses.
The off-site sign ban “stifles otherwise protected speech in the guise of promoting traffic safety and visual effects,” he said.
The ruling doesn’t order the city to issue Lamar permits for the 45 digital billboards located in various parts of the city. However, the city cannot reject the permit applications on the grounds that new off-site signs are prohibited by city ordinance.
The permits could ostensibly be denied on other grounds, such as height and size restrictions, or violation of local zoning regulations, but it’s not clear how many of the signs, if any, would fall into this category.
Louisiana-based Lamar owns billboards throughout the U.S., and has a history of suing cities and other government bodies over the permitting of new billboards. The company had no billboards in the city of L.A. until 2008, when it bought out a smaller company called Vista Media.
According to the company, it currently owns about 2,500 billboards in L.A.
For more on the lawsuit and a map of Lamar’s proposed billboard locations, click here.Dennis Hathaway