Appeals court sides with L.A. in fight against billboards and supergraphics


Los Angeles officials won a major victory Wednesday in their fight against unpermitted outdoor advertisements, with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the city’s ban on new supergraphics, billboards and freeway-facing signs.

The three-judge panel found that the City Council did not deny anyone’s 1st Amendment right to free speech by approving billboards in some instances but not others. The court also struck down injunctions that blocked the city from seeking the removal of unpermitted, multistory vinyl signs at nearly 40 locations.

Lawyers for City Atty. Carmen Trutanich portrayed the ruling as a breakthrough, one that could strengthen the city’s enforcement efforts and pave the way for the removal of as many as 30 other supergraphics.

“We absolutely will seek the removal of all of those signs that have no permits,” said Deputy City Atty. Michael Bostrom.

The lawsuit could ease the way for enforcement at 150 contested addresses, some of which do not currently have supergraphics, city officials said.

Although the ruling strengthens the city’s regulatory powers, it could also reopen the floodgates to new billboards. As the lawsuit made its way through the courts, the council held off on a proposal that allowed for the creation of as many as 21 billboard districts across the city.

Councilman Ed Reyes, who heads the council’s powerful planning committee, said that proposal now deserves another look. Although some neighborhoods detest billboards, others would welcome them, he said.

“There are places that want to feel urbanized. There are places that want activity and motion. The people there are ready” for new billboards, he said.

Wednesday’s ruling reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins, who struck down the city’s 2002 sign ordinance two years ago. That law banned the installation of new billboards and supergraphics except in certain locations, such as special zoning districts.

After that law went into effect, the city became the target of more than two dozen billboard industry lawsuits. In one of the cases, supergraphics company World Wide Rush argued that such exceptions gave “unbridled discretion” to the council to decide who would be allowed to erect a billboard--constituting a prior restraint on free speech.

A second company, SkyTag, filed its own lawsuit and said the exceptions to the sign ban allowed political favoritism to pollute the city’s permitting process. Both companies took aim at the city’s decision to allow new billboards at Staples Center and new digital billboards next to the 10 Freeway.

Collins agreed, striking down the city’s ban on supergraphics and new billboards, as well as a separate law prohibiting the installation of new “freeway-facing” signs. She also blocked the city from removing nearly 40 unpermitted World Wide Rush and SkyTag signs in downtown, Hollywood and Westwood.

Some SkyTag supergraphics featured a depiction of the Statue of Liberty, which a company executive described as an “artistic and political statement” about its free speech fight. After Collins barred city inspectors from removing those images, some of those towering patriotic images were replaced by pitches for jewelry, television shows and acne cream.

Exasperated neighborhood activists, who view supergraphics as a form of blight, said the city was incapable of outwitting an industry that could derive $100,000 per month from a single, multistory sign.

Trutanich, who campaigned on a promise to remove illegal signs, changed the terms of the debate in February, when a businessman was jailed in a Hollywood case and subsequently agreed to remove the sign. Lawyers for the city said 100 supergraphics have come down so far.