A federal appellate court dealt legendary litigator Laurence Tribe a bitter blow today when it ruled that Los Angeles' outdoor advertising and billboard ban did not violate an  advertising company's First Amendment right to free speech.

Tribe was representing Metro Lights, whose federal lawsuit argued that the City of Los Angeles was unfairly earning advertising cash for city coffers from tens of thousands of street banners, wall signs, murals and super graphics on public property, as well as rich revenue from an ad program at more than 3,000 bus stops and kiosks — while at the same time it forbade Metro Lights from erecting similar mini-billboards on private property.

Laurence Tribe: Can't win 'em all.

Read the decision:
Metro Lights v. City of LA-9th Circuit Decision.pdf

“It appears to us, therefore, that the slogan Metro Lights has

advanced, that 'First Amendment rights are not for sale,' simply misses

the point,” wrote the judges.

City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo,

a big loser in several cases brought by outdoor advertisers who have

covered L.A. with 10,000-plus billboards (4,000 of which are believed

to be illegal and even potentially unsafe), was hoping the court would

reverse a 2006 district judge's ruling that the city's double standard

was unconstitutional. The L.A. Weekly published an exclusive cover story about the debacle called Billboards Gone Wild.


new decision by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit gave the

city a rare victory. Huge billboard firms have been battering the city

in court ever since the city instituted a 2002 billboard ban — and

then ill‑advisedly proceeded to adopt numerous exceptions and


Anti-clutter activists are ecstatic over the city's rare win.


decision tells sign companies and their clients that they can't just

treat the visual environment of the city as a blank canvas for their

advertising,” said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight


affirmation of the off-site sign ban,” Hathaway continued, “also means

that the city planning department's proposal to eliminate the

distinction between off-site and on-site signs is completely

wrong-headed, and that a revised sign ordinance should concentrate on

strengthening the off-site ban, by eliminating the exceptions that have

led to a proliferation of signage and the degrading of the city's

visual landscape.”

Tribe is not exactly used to losing. He's won before the U.S. Supreme Court at least 17 times and authored American Constitutional Law

(1978), the most commonly cited work in that field. In 2001, he

co-founded the liberal American Constitution Society, supposedly a

counterweight to the conservative Federalist Society. He also has a lot

of law school student fans who were happy to see him back in court.


the appeals panel agreed with Tribe and Metro Lights — essentially

lifting the city's already self-weakened billboard ban — neighborhood

activists predicted a never-ending stream of new billboards in L.A.,

the center of the nation's illegal billboard industry.

The Metro

Lights legal squabble dates to 2001, six months before City Hall passed

its supposedly blanket ban on new billboards. At that time, the city

entered into a contract with the firm CBS Decaux, handing that company

a lucrative contract to sell and display miniature billboard-style ads

seen today on bus shelters and kiosks. In return, the city would get

$150 million from CBS Decaux over the 20-year life of the deal.


the contract with CBS Decaux opened up a Pandora's Box of litigation.

Metro Lights, a private firm with no such lucrative deal, began putting

up “movie poster”-style signs that looked like the city's billboards.


2003, the city began citing Metro Lights, which then responded with its

federal lawsuit. At the time Tribe said if he prevailed for Metro

Lights the city's longtime billboard ban “would be gone.” Better luck

next time, counselor!

Contact reporter Christine Pelisek at cpelisek@laweekly.com.

LA Weekly