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Appeals court upholds L.A.’s billboard ban

LOS ANGELES — Marking a major victory in the city’s effort to prevent the installation of more off-site commercial billboards, a state appeals court panel has upheld Los Angeles’ ban on the signs.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturns a lower court ruling that found the city’s ban violated the free-speech clause of the California Constitution.

The city’s ban was imposed in 2002 and has been challenged multiple times by various billboard advertising firms. The latest suit was filed by Lamar Central Outdoor in March 2013, with the company arguing the ban made distinctions between commercial and non-commercial signs, and between on-site and off-site signs, making the ban content-based and in violation of free speech rights.

An off-site sign is a commercial billboard in a location other than a property owner’s business. The city’s ban also prevents the conversion of existing signs to digital displays.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin ruled in favor of the company, leading to the city’s appeal.

In a 25-page ruling issued March 10, the appeals court panel reversed Lavin’s order, saying it could “find no constitutional infirmity in the sign ban.”

“In sum, the city’s off-site sign ban is not content-based, and therefore is not subject to strict scrutiny or heightened scrutiny under high court of California Supreme Court precedent,” according to the ruling.

“Consistent with the many authorities finding no constitutional infirmity under the First Amendment in the distinction between off-site and on-site signs, we reach a like conclusion under the free speech clause of the California Constitution.”

Previous legal challenges contending the ban violated U.S. free speech rights have been rejected in federal court.

Michael F. Wright, an attorney for Lamar Central Outdoor, said “the game’s not over yet” and the company plans to appeal the ruling.

“We disagree fundamentally with the reasoning and conclusion of the opinion and so we intend to seek review in the California Supreme Court,” Wright said.

He added that they “respectfully disagree” with the panel, saying the opinion “is out of touch with the governing authorities.”

One fact the panel ignored was that “the signs the city permits and prohibits have exactly the same effect on safety and aesthetics,” Wright said.

“Those are the constitutionally significant interests that the city has in sign regulation.”

“There ought to be a distinction between those two categories of signs — the prohibited and the permitted,” he said.

City Attorney Mike Feuer called the ruling a “real victory,” and said if the panel had ruled against the city, “we would have seen an uncontrolled avalanche of billboards erected throughout the city of Los Angeles.”

Feuer said Lamar Central Outdoor sued the city after its application to turn 45 static billboards into digital billboards was rejected.

“Picture what would have happened if Lamar had won this case,” Feuer said, adding that some estimate “there could be 2,000 such static signs eligible to be turned into digital billboards” around Los Angeles County.

“Neighborhoods would have [been] blighted by that transformation,” he said. “But we can control that proliferation now under this landmark ruling.

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