Sign Firms Use 1st Amendment in Court Case Arguments

Gail Chiasson, North American Editor

If it’s true that Los Angeles City Council has been casting votes to gain favor with campaign contributors, lobbying firms and other well-connected players at City Hall, does that behavior violate the public’s right to free speech?

That’s an argument being considered by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Beverly Hills-based SkyTag and Washington Cross, Pennsylvania sign company World Wide Rush are suing to strike down the city’s 2002 ban on new billboards and multistory supergraphic images stretched across the sides of buildings.

The Council members deny that such ‘currying favour’ activities occur, according to a L.A. Times article.

However, SkyTag told a court panel that the Council violated SkyTag’s 1st Amendment rights by creating a sign-permit system that favors some companies and snubs others. To back up its case, SkyTag pointed to Anschutz Entertainment Group, which persuaded council members to allow new, oversized signs at its L.A. Live entertainment complex. AEG, its employees and its affiliates contributed nearly $1.2 million to city candidates and ballot campaigns since 2000.

The L.A. Times article says that contributions and political influence have been a recurring theme in the city’s billboard debate. In 2001, Clear Channel Outdoor and other sign companies spent $425,000 on billboards that promoted the successful campaign of Rocky Delgadillo, then a candidate for city attorney. Five years later, Delgadillo crafted a legal settlement that allowed Clear Channel to convert up to 420 billboards to digital formats.

However, whether the judges will buy the new argument by SkyTag and World Wide Rush is questionable. (Two of the three judges have close connections to City Hall, either directly and/or through their spouses.)

World Wide Rush had a previous lawsuit against the 2002 billboard ban. The company sued the city two years ago, saying the ban was written in a way that allowed too many exceptions – sign districts, zoning districts and special agreements reached between the council and individual real estate developers. U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins sided with World Wide Rush, barring the city from removing new supergraphics.

In the new court case, World Wide Rush and SkyTag both argued that the 2002 billboard ban gave the council ‘unfettered discretion’ to hand out exceptions to constitutionally protected 1st Amendment content. In one case used as an example, two digital signs from Clear Channel Outdoor were allowed to go up in exchange for the removal of more than a dozen traditional billboards from Santa Monica Boulevard.

According to the L.A. Times article, Deputy City Atty. Michael Bostrom said that the Council is a legislative body and can amend its laws as it sees fit, with each exception simply an effort to update the city’s billboard law.

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