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Signs of trouble

February 12, 2009

Los Angeles lawmakers and lawyers have so completely fumbled their attempts to regulate billboards that they are starting over. As the minutes tick by on a three-month moratorium on new signs -- a ban that advertisers and property managers are flouting -- the Planning Commission is considering a proposal to erase the city's distinction between "off-site" and "on-site" signs. The motivation may be sound, but the move is a mistake. Drafters should try again.

The terms can be misleading, so some explanation is in order. On-site signs are those posted on property at which the advertised product or service is sold. Think of the golden arches at a McDonald's, or a sign that says "carwash" at, of course, a carwash. But put the golden arches on a sign at the carwash -- or on a free-standing billboard like one of the dozens along Lincoln Boulevard or other streets burdened by billboard blight -- and they are off-site signs.

It makes sense to regulate these types of signs differently. It is perfectly rational to allow businesses to advertise their products, their services and their existence at their places of business, while banning or otherwise regulating off-site signs. Because the distinguishing factor is the signs' content, some lawyers and city inspectors are worried that billboard companies will sue, claiming that their 1st Amendment rights have been infringed. But the city has enough experience with the companies to know that they will sue anyway, given the slightest opening. Los Angeles is not simply the largest billboard market, it is also the testing ground for the companies' nationwide strategies, and they can be expected to fight every restriction. It's time to confront those suits rather than run from them with counterproductive settlements.

Besides, there is little cause to believe that the distinction between on-site and off-site signs won't hold up in court.

Inspectors are nervous because they know that clever advertisers will try to finesse the on-site/off-site borderline. An example often discussed is a huge off-site sign advertising a stage show. The advertiser attempted to convert it into an on-site sign by selling T-shirts beneath it, each shirt emblazoned with the name of the show. See? The billboard advertises the product that's sold on site.

But the city must back up its billboard inspectors and not permit that kind of flim-flam. Advertisers will be creative and will push the boundaries. But we have seen in the last month, as sign companies stretch garish plastic and fabric sheeting over buildings' windows and exits just to advertise their products and thumb their noses at the city's moratorium, that they will not stop pushing until the city pushes back.

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