Jim Porter: Mobile billboard ban upheld in California (opinion)
If you’re like me, you’re not enamored with mobile billboards, like trailers and cars parked on city streets emblazoned with advertising. “Eat at Simon’s.”
With the First Amendment Freedom of Speech, it must be legal, right?
Between 2010 and 2012, the California Legislature modified the Vehicle Code empowering local municipalities to regulate mobile billboards, which the Legislature found “blight city streets, endanger residents and reduce available on-street parking.”
The new laws authorized cities and counties to prohibit the parking of portable, non-motorized, wheeled vehicles that carry signs for the primary purpose of advertising – known as mobile billboard advertising displays; and the new legislation also regulated motor vehicles adorned with advertising – “that is not permanently affixed to the vehicle and that extends beyond the overall length, width or height of the vehicle.”
Painted advertising and decals on cars is not regulated. Realtors and contractors can relax.
In response to the new legislation, the cities of Los Angeles, Santa Clarita, Rancho Cucamonga and Loma Linda passed virtually identical ordinances banning both types of mobile billboards.
Free Speech Rights!
Lone Star Security operates a fleet of stand-alone trailers that were specially constructed to display signs or banners which Lone Star uses to advertise its burglar alarm services in the Los Angeles area — parking the trailers throughout city streets. I.e. ugly and obnoxious. My personal response if I saw a Lone Star trailer in my neighborhood would be to boycott the company.
Sami Ammari promotes his business by bolting signs to motor vehicles that he parks on city streets in L.A. Sami’s got class.
Lone Star filed suit in federal court claiming its freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment was violated with the prohibition on non-motorized mobile billboard advertising displays. Sami’s lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of L.A.’s regulation of mobile billboards on parked, motorized vehicles.
At trial the cities won. Lone Star and Sami appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.
The First Amendment, through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits state and local governments from enacting laws “abridging the freedom of speech.” You know that. Laws affecting speech in traditional public forums like sidewalks and city streets, are presumptively invalid.
However, the government may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech in traditional public areas so long as the restrictions are content neutral, are “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest,” and “leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.”
The cities bear the burden of proving the constitutionality of their mobile billboard ordinances.
The advertising companies argued the laws were unconstitutional because they discriminated against advertising, a form of speech.
The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding the ordinances did not regulate a certain type of speech like certain products or political campaigns or religious beliefs. The Court found the signs’ primary purpose was to display messages as opposed to vehicular travel.
The Court quoted the U.S. Supreme Court: “If a municipality has a sufficient basis for believing that billboards are traffic hazards and are unattractive, then obviously the most direct and perhaps the only effective approach to solving the problems they create is to prohibit them.”
Finally, the Court of Appeals found the cities’ regulations against billboards left many other means for these companies to communicate their messages, such as stationary billboards, bus benches, flyers, newspapers, handbills, painted signs on vehicles, decals and bumper stickers on vehicles. Plus, of course, online marketing.
The Ninth Circuit upheld the mobile billboard bans. Fine with me. I assume the ruling has no effect on mobile billboards (e.g. trucks and trailers) on private lands which was not discussed in the case.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee, Tahoe City and Reno. Jim’s practice areas include: development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.
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