The Los Angeles city ban on digital billboards was reinstated by a state appeals court Thursday, the latest defeat for sign owners in a round of state and federal legal challenges.
The lawsuit claimed the city’s 2009 ban on business signs erected off the site of a company violated free speech rights, alleging it was aimed at the content of messages and made improper distinction between onsite signs and those offsite. The Second District Court of Appeals disagreed.
“The city’s offsite sign ban is not content-based,” wrote Justice Elizabeth Grimes. “Consistent with the many authorities finding no constitutional infirmity under the First Amendment in the distinction between offsite and onsite signs, we reach a like conclusion under the free speech clause of the California Constitution,” she said.
The city imposed a permanent ban on new offsite signs in 2002, including alterations to legally existing signs. Then in 2009, the city explicitly banned offsite signs with the brightly lit digital displays.
Lamar Central Outdoor had 45 applications to convert existing signs to digital denied and in 2013 it sued.
Lamar argued the distinction between commercial and noncommercial signs and offsite and onsite signs was content –based and thus a First Amendment violation. The trial court agreed, but the appeals court overturned the judgment Thursday.
There have been three prior challenges in federal court to the constitutionality of the sign ban and in each case the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found no constitutional violation.
The city maintains the purpose of the ban was to protect public safety and prevent interference with traffic.
In 2006, the city settled suits with two outdoor advertising companies, CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor, allowing them to convert 840 signs to digital displays, despite the ban. That was later voiced in 2009 and upheld in 2012.
California precedent has held that a distinction between onsite-offsite signs does not violate free speech. “We note in addition that other states have free speech clauses similar to ours, and courts in those states have upheld ordinances against both state and federal constitutional challenges to an onsite-offsite distinction,” wrote Grimes.
The court noted the city has approved 460,000 square feet of offsite signs be built since 2001.
Case: Lamar Central Outdoor v. City of Los Angeles, No. B260074