California should act to regulate outdoor advertising

Spray paint your name on a freeway underpass and, if you’re caught, you’ll get fined up to $10,000 and maybe jailed. And you should be. Vandalism is a crime that can undermine communities by turning them into graffiti-ridden dumps. But erect an illegal billboard near the same freeway — or alter a legal sign by turning it around or enlarging it, for example — and you’re protected, rather than punished, by state law. Your sign, and your contempt for the law in erecting or altering it, can be as damaging to neighborhood livability as any graffiti, but current law dictates that you can’t be fined or otherwise punished for your act.

At most, the owners of signs illegally placed near interstate highways and other roads that are part of the federal network can be asked to “cure” their illegal acts. In Los Angeles, where most signs facing freeways are banned, that means that if you break the law by turning your otherwise legal sign toward the freeway, the city can’t fine you. It can only tell you to turn the sign back the way it was. And if you don’t, well, it can tell you again.

That gives billboard companies a choice: make lots of money by breaking the law and suffering no financial consequences, or be law-abiding suckers. Like all laws that encourage lawbreakers, the faulty portion of the Outdoor Advertising Act may be as bad as having no law at all. It must be changed, and the state Senate can begin to make a measured and appropriate change by passing SB 1470 by Mark Leno (D- San Francisco).

The bill is exceedingly modest. It doesn’t target any sign that was in compliance with state or local laws when it was erected. But owners of lawbreaking signs could be fined up to $2,500 a day until they are removed or returned to legal status. Local governments would be able to proceed civilly against the companies to force them to disgorge the revenues they gained from their illegal signs.

Billboard companies have shamefully called on nonprofit groups, to which they occasionally give free billboard space, to do their lobbying work for them. A Girl Scouts support organization and a minority broadcasters training program, among others, have sent letters to the Senate in the apparent belief that they will lose their free legal billboard space — or perhaps in the belief that their message somehow depends on illegal billboards. But legal billboard space will remain unaffected and will still be available for paid and unpaid advertising. This bill has a downside only for sign companies that have gotten used to virtual immunity from legal enforcement. For the rest of us, SB 1470 is an important step forward.