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L.A. Billboard Fees Are Blocked

A federal judge rules they violate free-speech rights. The city could lose about $3 million a year in revenue.

November 01, 2002|David Rosenzweig | Times Staff Writer

Citing free speech guarantees, a federal judge has blocked the city of Los Angeles from collecting more than $3 million in annual fees from owners of outdoor billboards.

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said in a 17-page ruling made public Thursday that two billboard ordinances enacted earlier this year violate the 1st Amendment.

The ordinances, he said, favor commercial over noncommercial signs and regulate noncommercial signs based on their content, a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution.

He also said the ordinances are unconstitutionally vague and would cause serious harm to those affected.

"The only hardship the city will suffer is lost revenue, which can be recouped if the ordinances are ultimately found to be constitutional," wrote Wilson.

"We're disappointed in the judge's ruling," said Cecilia Estolano, a special assistant to City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. "This ordinance is an important tool to enforce our billboard regulations. We think we have a very strong case for appeal to the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals]."

Three media conglomerates, Clear Channel Outdoor Inc., Viacom Outdoor Inc. and National Advertising Co., had sought the preliminary injunction against the ordinances, which were set to take effect Thursday.

Richard Kendall, who represented the three billboard companies, said his clients were gratified by the judge's ruling.

At issue was a $314-per-sign fee the city imposed for annual inspections of about 10,000 billboards throughout Los Angeles. Viacom and Clear Channel control about 40% of those signs, which carry commercial and noncommercial messages. Wilson said that a sign with a noncommercial message is more likely to be subject to a fee because of the nature of the message.

"For example," he wrote, "a restaurant can erect a sign related to the restaurant 'Eat at Joe's Cafe' but will be subject to the ... fee if the restaurant decides to erect a noncommercial sign, such as 'Save the Whales' or 'Say No to Drugs.' "

The judge also expressed puzzlement over the purpose of the ordinances, which the city building code says are supposed to protect the city's aesthetics and ensure public safety.

Imposing a fee on certain sign structures based on their content will do nothing to achieve either goal, Wilson said.

He also cited an admission by the city's chief enforcer that Los Angeles has about 60,000 illegal signs on the premises of businesses that are not regulated by the ordinances.

"The ordinances are not the most direct approach to solving the city's problems," Wilson said. "The ordinances do not prohibit signs, but rather impose a fee on certain signs and not on others."

If anything, he said, on-premise billboards should be targeted for regulation since they comprise 97.5% of all outdoor signs.

In total, there are about 400,000 unregulated on-premise signs in the city, officials said, and about 10,000 billboards and non-commercial signs regulated by the ordinances.

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