Part of the problem is illegal billboards, which are definitely in the crosshairs this election season, but digital billboards -- which are almost always legal, because of the expense involved -- are also on the roster of targets. The shift in public sentiment against digital signage is evident in the new crop of candidates for the LA city council from the city's 5th district, recently profiled by the Los Angeles Times. In a trend that is surely alarming to billboard owners, five out of six candidates running for an upcoming vacancy on the city council are promising to take a harder line against outdoor advertising, with some advocating a total ban on new outdoor advertising surfaces.
Nor are these candidates legal novices: Robert Schwartz, one of the hardliners running for election on March 3, is an entertainment attorney. His campaign promise regarding outdoor advertising carried an ominous note of finality: "We need to make sure we get this right this time. The situation has gone on for too long and has certainly gotten way out of control."
Schwartz and his fellow contenders are all responding to growing anger among residents of the well-heeled neighborhoods in the 5th district, who complain that a legal settlement between the city and outdoor advertisers in 2006 that took the teeth out of the city's 2002 ban on digital billboard conversions. The district has become a magnet for digital billboards over the last couple years, especially in comparison to neighboring Santa Monica, which has banned billboards altogether.
Last year the city council enacted a three-month moratorium on new billboard conversions to give it time to draw up a new law that would stand up to a First Amendment challenge. Since then, however, the local legislators were emboldened by a significant court victory in January, when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the city's 2002 ban on new outdoor advertising. Specifically, the court found that the ban did not violate the First Amendment right to free speech, reversing the decision of lower courts.