San Francisco Outdoor Advertising Company Lawsuit Mirrors Billboard Attacks Against Los Angeles
Two Los Angeles court rulings in favor of outdoor advertising companies are playing strong roles in a recent court filing in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
Metro Fuel, which is owned by New York based Fuel Outdoor Holdings, which specializes in mini billboards or “Metro Lights” panels, is hoping that a federal court judge will issue a preliminary injunction blocking San Francisco from prosecuting building owners who allow illegal billboards on their property.
Lawyers for the outdoor advertising company are citing two billboard victories in Los Angeles where district court judges have granted injunctive relief barring the city of Los Angeles from enforcing its billboard laws against outdoor advertising companies Metro Lights and World Wide Rush.
Fuel Outdoor Holdings purchased Metro Lights in 2006.
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“The Metro Lights and World Wide Rush decisions, which factually are squarely on point, apply an unbroken line of Supreme Court cases confirming that a regulatory scheme restricting commercial speech cannot stand if it is pierced by exceptions that substantially undermine its purported rationale,” according to the recent filing in San Francisco.
Anti-billboard activists say Fuel Outdoor Holdings is systematically attacking and putting in jeopardy city sign laws around the country and using the victories in Los Angeles as ammunition.
In 2001, six months before Los Angeles City Hall erected a blanket ban on all new billboards, the city entered into a contract with CBS Decaux, which gave the advertising company a lucrative contract to sell and display advertising on bus shelters and kiosks. In return, the city would receive $150 million over the 20-year-term of the agreement.
Instead, the contract opened up a Pandora's box of litigation. It didn't take long before Metro Lights “movie poster” style signs that looked similar in size and shape to the cities “street furniture” started popping up.
In 2003, the city began citing the company for illegally erecting billboards. Metro Lights filed a federal lawsuit against the city arguing that its “street furniture” program was “unconstitutional.” In 2006, a district judge agreed.
In June of 2008, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office argued in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the district court made an error in its earlier findings, and the city had every right to ban commercial signs and profit on its own "transit aesthetic" program. Laurence Tribe, the attorney for Fuel Outdoor Holdings, countered that the city’s 2002 ban on billboards restricted free speech and gave City Hall an unfair advantage in outdoor advertising. The decision is still pending with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
That same month, a federal court judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking Los Angeles from prosecuting World Wide Rush, a Philadelphia-based company that posts “supergraphics.” In federal court, the “supergraphics” company argued that the city’s 2002 billboard ban violated its free speech, and that city leaders were discriminating against them by forbidding “supergraphics” and billboards within 2,000 feet of freeways while making exceptions with Los Angeles City Council approved “Supplemental Use Districts” or specialty billboard districts.
On June 9, US District Judge Audrey Collins said that Worldwide Rush showed that it had a likelihood of winning the lawsuit it filed in 2007 after the city began citing seven of its 34 locations.
San Francisco banned all new billboards in 2002. It also has strict zoning regulations that prohibit billboards in residential areas, near schools and parks. Recently, the city began issuing “notices of violations” against Fuel’s panel sign lessors. The city has argued that the ban and restrictive zoning is necessary to preserve and protect “traffic safety” and “aesthetics.”
Metro Fuel filed the motion against the city arguing that it was unfair that the city could make money off its street furniture program, lamppost banners, news racks and kiosks but forbid similar advertising on private property by a private firm.
It is unclear when the San Francisco case will be heard before a district judge.
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