Commentary

L.A. City Council To Vote On Stricter Billboard Law

Under pressure from Los Angeles voters to present a workable revision of the city's billboard law, on Thursday the Los Angeles Planning Commission agreed on a new, stricter version of the law that will now go to the City Council for a vote. The proposed revision will prohibit the introduction of new digital billboards almost everywhere except for 21 special "sign districts" around the city. The law also restricts supergraphics -- giant vinyl signs that can be applied to the sides of buildings.

The vote follows a 4-3 deadlock last week, with opponents arguing the proposed revision wasn't strict enough. The hardliners warned that the provision allowing digital billboards in special sign districts will open the law to court challenges contesting its constitutionality -- negating the entire purpose of the revision process. However, this time around they appear to have been overruled, 6-3, with the additional votes of commissioners who weren't present last week.

The law being revised was originally passed in 2002 in response to a wave of new billboard advertising around the city. Since then the law has faced numerous legal challenges on First Amendment grounds, leading to a legal settlement in 2006 with CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel outdoor that allowed the companies to install 800 new digital signs in return for not challenging the law's constitutionality. This compromise, however, proved unsatisfactory all around: on one side, outdoor advertising opponents said it rendered the law toothless, while smaller outdoor advertising companies objected to being excluded.

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Outdoor advertising came under renewed attack in October 2008 when residents of L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood protested Clear Channel's conversion of a traditional billboard to digital display. At the same time, several out-of-home advertising companies that specialize in "super graphics" have challenged the law's constitutionality, pointing out that loopholes allow the city itself to use the same kind of advertising. The recent revisions were supposed to secure it against these First Amendment challenges, but if the dissenting commissioners are right, the allowance for special sign districts means there may be more legal battles in the not-so-distant future.

Per this provision, the Council would decide, case-by-case, whether a particular district can get new signs. The councilors, however, are charged with ensuring that new signage would complement the neighborhood's specific "theme or character." Just what constitutes a district's "theme or character" hasn't been defined, but it will require "multiple public hearings before the City Planning Commission, Planning and Land Use Management Committee... and finally the full City Council." The dissenting commissioners warn that giving officials this power may be interpreted by courts as arbitrary regulation of public speech by the government.

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