Judge rejects Los Angeles' billboard ban

Ruling on L.A. billboards is latest setback for the city in a drawn-out battle over outdoor advertising

A judge has struck down Los Angeles' billboard ban, saying it runs afoul of the California Constitution's protection of free speech.

Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin's decision hands a major victory to Lamar Central Outdoor, which sued the city to secure the right to erect 45 digital billboards in Silver Lake, Glassell Park, Hollywood, Tarzana, Westchester and other neighborhoods. Lavin concluded the city improperly restricted some types of advertising but not others.

One longtime billboard foe said the decision, filed Oct. 14, could open the floodgates for digital signs by an array of companies.

"The 45 digital billboards that Lamar wants, which is at the heart of the lawsuit, are the tip of the iceberg," said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. "If this ruling stands, you could well see a huge proliferation of billboards, particularly digital billboards."

Rob Wilcox, spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said the city would appeal. "The judge's decision is squarely at odds" with a 2011 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Wilcox said in an email. Feuer expects an appeal will put the billboard decision on hold, Wilcox said.

The ruling is the latest setback for the city in a drawn-out battle over outdoor advertising. In 2002, the City Council voted to prohibit new billboards citywide, but also to create a process to allow some to go up in installations in special sign districts. The law drew several legal challenges and, in recent years, rulings from federal judges upholding it.

Lamar sued in state court, saying the restrictions violated the state Constitution. The company's lawyer argued the law improperly prohibited "off site" signs — ones featuring products not available at the sign's location — while allowing signs at businesses where advertised items are sold.

"If you're going to regulate billboards, regulate them by their location, size and appearance, not by the content of the message on the sign," said Michael Wright, Lamar's attorney.

Lavin's ruling said the city's law would allow the owner of a bagel hut to install a 200-square-foot digital sign reading "Joe's Bagels Sold Here." But the same law, the judge said, would prohibit a 200-square-foot digital sign in the same location that advertises "Bill's Bagels – 1 Mile Ahead."

The judge said he was not persuaded by federal court rulings upholding the billboard ban.

"The court is neither required nor inclined to follow the 9th Circuit's decisions in the case, especially as they relate to the ban's validity under the California Constitution," he wrote.

Lamar is seeking to put up signs in an array of locations, including Sherman Way in Van Nuys, Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Studio City and Venice Boulevard in Palms. Wright said Lamar planned to move forward with its city application to install digital billboards, even if the new ruling is appealed.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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