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City of Los Angeles Billboard Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

On October 20, 2014, a Superior Court judge struck down the City of Los Angeles’s high-profile ban on billboards. The City’s ban prohibited all billboards except those that were specifically permitted under certain agreements and planning districts. The ban also restricted conversion of existing, lawfully-established billboards to digital displays. The City used the ban to force many digital displays across the City to be turned off.

Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavan found that the City’s ban was unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to forty-five specific permit applications filed by Lamar Central Outdoor, LLC. Judge Lavan concluded that he was not bound by previous federal court decisions that upheld the City’s regulatory scheme because Lamar challenged the ban under the free speech provisions of the California Constitution, which are broader than those protected under the United States Constitution.

The court was troubled that the City’s ban applies only to signs that advertise a business not located on the same property as the sign, while permitting a structurally identical sign that displays a noncommercial message or advertises a business located on the same property. According to the court, the regulation is triggered by the content of the message, yet the City presented no evidence to demonstrate that commercial billboards contribute more to traffic or aesthetic problems than noncommercial and on-site commercial signs. Such content-based regulation, without clear evidence that the ban directly advances the City’s asserted interests, violates the free speech provisions of the California Constitution.

Despite this ruling, don’t expect to see all those digital billboards around the City switch the lights back on immediately. The court decision does not require the City to approve even Lamar’s forty-five permit applications. Instead, City officials are directed to process those applications in accordance with the ruling. In addition, we expect the City may appeal the court’s decision, which could put everything on hold until the Court of Appeal rules. And so, the billboard wars continue.