A year ago, LA was in the unpleasant position of having opened the floodgates to digital billboards, supergraphics and freeway-facing signs.
There were 11,000 off-site billboards, more than a third illegal, and visual blight from signage was everywhere — the result of poorly crafted legislation, miserable enforcement and the corrupting influence of money on City Hall politicians.
On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals restored a measure of law and order by overturning a lower court ruling and finding the city’s bans on freeway facing signs and supergraphics.
There were 11,000 off-site billboards, more than a third illegal, and
visual blight from signage was everywhere — the result of poorly
crafted legislation, miserable enforcement and the corrupting influence
of money on City Hall politicians.
The key issues were the free speech rights of billboard companies and the exceptions granted by city officials that allowed Staples Center and a few others to use supergraphics and digital signs that face freeways, creating potential traffic hazards,
In a 25-page ruling (worldwiderush.pdf), the appeals court in a ruling written by Judge Kim Wardlaw and supported unanimously by Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Stephen Trott, the court reversed District Court Judge Audrey Collins ruling against the city and the contempt of court finding.
“The City’s exceptions to the Freeway Facing Sign Ban do not undermine the City’s interests in aesthetics and safety,” the court ruled. “Indeed, the exceptions were made for the express purpose of advancing those very interests. Allowing billboards at the Staples Center was an important element of a project to remove’ blight and dangerous conditions from downtown Los Angeles. Similarly, the Fifteenth Street SUD (special use district) was an outgrowth of the City’s efforts to improve traffic flow, and thereby safety, on Santa Monica Boulevard.
“Not only did the agreement to allow signs in the Fifteenth Street SUD advance that project, it also resulted in a net reduction of billboards inthe City. Ironically, the most significant denigration to the City’s interests in traffic safety and aesthetics might result, not from allowing the freeway facing billboards at the StaplesCenter and in the Fifteenth Street SUD but instead from strict adherence to the Freeway Facing Sign Ban, which might have severely hampered, if not completely defeated, both projects.”
Frankly, I think the court gave the city the benefit of a lot of doubts.
But after a long series of legal defeats and a seemingly unenforceable sign ordinance when he took office less than a year ago, City Attorney Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich and his team deserve a lot of the credit. Even his critics ought to be able to acknowledge that.
 The district court took an all-or-nothing approach to its
constitutional analysis of the Freeway Facing Sign Ban, stating that to
“preserv[e] even one freeway-facing sign…undermines the City’s stated
interests in traffic safety and aesthetics…
His team, led by
top assistant Jane Usher who crusaded for a crackdown on billboards as
president of the Planning Commission before resigning in protest to what
was going on, drafted a tough ordinance and got it enacted by a
reluctant City Council.
In defending the new ordinance and even
the old one in this case, the City Attorney’s office is wracking up a
series of court victories that give LA control over signage for the
first time in decades.
On the free speech issue, the appellate
“The city reasonably may have concluded that, on
balance, safer and more attractive thoroughfares would result from
renovations to Santa Monica Boulevard and a reduction in the City’s
total number of billboards, even if this required installation of some
freeway facing billboards along Fifteenth Street. The City also
reasonably may have concluded that the benefits of redeveloping and
attracting people to an otherwise dangerous and blighted downtown area
outweighed the harm of additional freeway facing billboards restricted
to that area…
“The City submitted a convincing rationale –
which is entirely consistent with its asserted gov-
interest — for exempting some freeway facing signs from its Ban…the
City’s decision to permit some freeway facing billboards at the Staples
Center and in the Fifteenth Street SUD does not break the link between
the Freeway Facing Sign Ban and the City’s objectives in traffic safety
The court also threw out the argument that the
“Supergraphic and Off-Site Sign Bans were unconstitutional prior
restraints on speech because their exceptions impermissibly vest the
City Council with unbridled discretion to select among speakers on the
basis of content. “
“This legal conclusion was erroneous,
however, because the prior restraint doctrine does not apply to the
legislative function at issue here. The exceptions to the Supergraphic
and Off-Site Sign Bans are rooted in the City Council’s legislative
discretion, not its discretion to make
executive decisions as part of
the LAMC’s regulatory scheme. This distinction makes all the
So while the billboard companies and the people they
benefit may harangue about Trutanich’s aggressive enforcement of the
law, including the arrests of company executives, he has the law on his
side now so you can expect a lot tougher enforcement in the months