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Council Told Law Is on the Side of Billboard

Ads: Members are told statutes don't restrict vulgar content like that in Westside posting.

June 26, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There isn't much the city can do about a raunchy record company billboard that is causing an uproar on the Westside, legal and zoning officials told the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday.

The news prompted Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents the area, to consider proposing a local law restricting the content of billboards near residential neighborhoods, schools and places of worship.

The council also voted 11 to 0 to send the matter to a committee that will study the council's options regarding Tha Row Records' billboard, which features a cartoon character sitting on a toilet and a corresponding vulgarity. Tha Row Records was formerly known as Death Row Records.

The large advertisement, atop the record label's four-story building at San Vicente and Wilshire boulevards, was put up against the wishes of billboard owner Clear Channel Outdoor. The two companies' attorneys are negotiating, but the council ordered an official with Clear Channel to call police because armed guards for the record company reportedly have stopped the billboard firm's crews from getting to the billboard.

"We can't let people with billboards and guns intimidate this city," Weiss said. " ... We need to respond appropriately in a way they understand."

Tha Row's publicist said company officials had no immediate comment.

After hearing numerous complaints from residents and workers who regularly see the massive advertisement, for a new release by Crooked 1, Weiss asked city legal and building officials to look into the billboard's legality.

Dave Keim, the city's chief of code enforcement, said a permit was issued for the billboard structure in 1984, and "there's no provision in our ... municipal code that allows me to regulate content."

Assistant City Atty. Sharon Siedorf Cardenas added that the billboard's scatological humor is of a type that is not considered obscene under legal precedents.

"For either the words or the picture to be obscene, it has to be sexual content," she said.

"Just using a four-letter word by itself or a depiction of someone sitting on the toilet absent sexual connotation cannot be considered obscene."

Weiss, a former federal prosecutor, said he believed the city attorney's report was flawed. He also said the council ought to consider a narrowly tailored statute that would prohibit such off-color billboards near schools, residential areas and places of worship.

Fellow council members said the body needed to tread lightly.

"I want to make sure, before we do anything, we don't just walk all over the 1st Amendment and treat it lightly or disregard it," said Councilman Nick Pacheco.

American Civil Liberties Union officials were confident the ordinance would be thrown out by a court.

"Just trying to protect people's sensibilities--that's not a sufficient basis for restrictions on speech," said Peter Eliasberg, the managing attorney in the ACLU's Southern California office. The council "would be better off spending time on more productive things and not waste the taxpayers' money passing unconstitutional laws."

However, Councilman Dennis Zine said the issue at hand was not a 1st Amendment matter. "This is a hijacked billboard," he said.

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