A federal judge refused to overturn a sweeping prohibition on outdoor advertising throughout Los Angeles on Monday, September 28th, dealing the billboard industry a temporary legal setback.
U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins issued a tentative ruling against the petition of plaintiff Liberty Media Company to enjoin Los Angeles from imposing a ban on all new supergraphics, billboards and other outdoor signage.
The City Council passed an emergency ordinance on August 7th, as the third moratorium on new signs was about to expire. City leaders feared that if the ban were allowed to expire without a sign law in place, companies like Liberty Media and others would flood the Department of Building and Safety with applications for new signs.
Under the new sign law, digital billboards, multi-story supergraphics and signs that face freeways will be banned.
Liberty Media was seeking to install 16 new signs that city officials contend were supergraphics and therefore prohibited under the new sign law.
In documents filed with the court before the hearing, the plaintiff’s attorneys sought to cast the ordinance as an infringement on free speech.
“The city cannot be allowed to play games with the First Amendment by reenacting the same unconstitutional law under a new ordinance number in order to avoid an adverse court ruling,” the plaintiff wrote in its court briefing. “It is time to hold the city accountable for its repeated First Amendment violations.
“The court should take action now and prohibit the city from interfering with plaintiff’s ability to erect and maintain its signs. Contrary to the city’s assertions, if the court does so, ‘life as we know it will not end, and the sky will not fall.’”
The billboard company also argued that the sign ordinance violated the city charter and the Brown Act, the landmark state meeting act passed more that 50 years ago.
But Collins, chief judge of the U.S. Central District Court, rejected those arguments.
“None of these claims has merit,” she wrote.
Sheri Bonstelle, a City Hall lobbyist with the law firm of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro, thinks that most outdoor advertising firms see the lawsuit by World Wide Rush as the case that will ultimately decide this contentious battle between a billboard company’s right to free expression and a city’s right to limit what some feel is urban blight.
“I think the World Wide case will give cities clear direction as to how they should craft their sign ordinances,” Bonstelle told The Argonaut.
Advocates for reducing or eliminating billboards view the lawsuits as a ploy by outdoor advertising firms to circumvent the city’s attempt to place stricter regulations on their signs.
Dennis Hathaway, director of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, was in the courtroom when Collins issued her ruling.
“It’s an important victory for the city,” said Hathaway, a Venice resident who has been at the forefront of leading the charge for stricter regulation of outdoor signs. “It could have been dire if the judge had ruled in Liberty Media’s favor. It would have kicked the door wide open for billboard companies.”
Deputy City Attorney Michael Bostrom said that he believes that the August 7th ordinance will be upheld.
“We are confident about our ordinance that we currently have in place,” said Bostrom.
Another Westside resident, Marcia Hanscom, was also happy to hear that Collins had tentatively upheld the new municipal sign law.
“This decision reflects well on the legal strategy of our new city attorney and holds hope for a more sane and beautiful city,” said Hanscom, who like Hathaway has been an outspoken critic of the proliferation of billboards on the Westside. “(City Attorney) Carmen Trutanich being elected to this office is one of the best decisions the voters of this city have made.”
Outdoor advertising companies have not had much success in recent Los Angeles court cases. An appeals court ruled on January 6th that the council was within its legal right to place a prohibition on billboard signs. Metro Lights LLC, an outdoor advertising firm, had argued that the ban violates its First Amendment rights, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the council’s decision to impose the moratorium.
Billboard companies did prevail in a 2002 lawsuit against the city, which has seen an explosion of outdoor signs and supergraphics since then.
Not all Westsiders believe in regulating billboards. In March, Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, acknowledged that digital signs near residential neighborhoods could be problematic. But he also questioned the city’s right to limit what he says is the advertiser’s free speech rights.
“I’m very cautious about the regulation of media by local and state governments,” he said.
Trutanich has won the admiration of those who want to halt the onslaught of billboards for his tough rhetoric on enforcing municipal laws regarding outdoor signs and his public statements regarding his opposition to any signs near the Ballona Wetlands.
“It was really refreshing to know that he respects neighborhood activists and was willing to sit down with us and hear our concerns,” said Hanscom, a Playa del Rey resident.
“I’m going to do the right thing by the people of Los Angeles,” Trutanich, a former Los Angeles deputy district attorney, told The Argonaut the day before he was sworn into office on July 2nd. “We’re going to stop the proliferation of billboards, and the owners of these outdoor signs will have to follow strict guidelines from now on.”
Despite the judge’s ruling, Hathaway is still concerned that Liberty Media could appeal the verdict.
“This is not the end of the story,” he cautioned.
Bonstelle, who represents In Plain Sight Media in a lawsuit against the city, said that she is often amazed at how contentious the fight over regulating billboards has become.
“In a way, I’m sort of baffled that this has become the issue of the day,” she said.
Collins was expected to issue her final verdict within days of the tentative ruling.
Mayer Brown, the law firm representing Liberty Media, did not return calls for comment on the verdict.