Alameda Billboard Ban Passes Free-Speech Test

     (CN) – Alameda County, Calif. may enforce its ban on the display of signs in a “scenic corridor,” a federal judge ruled.
     Citizens for Free Speech LLC and landowner Michael Shaw claimed in June 2014 that Alameda County’s overly broad sign ordinances gave the county “unfettered discretion to approve or disapprove a variance application to display a sign of any size, with any content of speech.”
     The county restricted the plaintiffs’ freedom of speech by disapproving signs expressing opposition to development plans in the area, violating their First Amendment rights, the equal protection clause and California’s free speech laws, the plaintiffs said.
     U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs in August 2014, and directed both parties to provide more information about the “appropriateness” of the injunction.
     Breyer defined the injunction’s terms after considering the submissions, in September 2014.
     “Accordingly, defendant and its employees, agents, officers, managers, delegates, or assigns, and those in active concert or participation are hereby enjoined and prohibited, pending trial of this action, from any and all conduct in enforcement of zoning ordinances that prohibits plaintiffs from displaying the signs, encumbers plaintiffs’ right to display the signs, interferes with plaintiffs’ practical ability to display the signs, or penalizes or punished plaintiffs’ property relating to the signs,” Breyer wrote at the time.
     The judge added that “irreparable injury” was likely “if the county was not enjoined from enforcing the zoning ordinance against them.” And, he said, “the balance of hardships and public interest favored the grant of an injunction.”
     Shaw owns a parcel within an area zoned as a “planned development” district along Interstate 580 in Alameda County and since 2012 has maintained a single on-site sign that advertises for his company, Lockaway Storage.
     Shaw and Citizens for Free Speech agreed to the construction and display of three additional signs on the parcel.
     A county official told Shaw in 2014 that the signs were prohibited and ordered them to be removed.
     On Thursday, Breyer granted and denied in part Alameda’s request for summary judgment in the back-and-forth lawsuit.
     Alameda had argued that the plaintiffs’ as-applied and facial challenges to the zoning ordinance both failed.
     The ordinance divides the county’s unincorporated territory into 25 different types of district, within which only certain buildings, structures, or land uses are permitted.
     “The county has presented substantial evidence that zoning ordinances sections 17.18.010 and 17.18.120 did not apply to plaintiffs’ signs, and the plan precluded plaintiffs from building the signs on the parcel,” Breyer wrote, granting summary judgment on both free-speech claims . “Plaintiffs have failed to rebut the county’s evidence or provide any evidence indicating that those provisions were unconstitutionally applied to them.”
     Breyer added that the ordinance’s billboard ban was “not ambiguous: it explicitly regulates only commercial speech.”
     “The purpose of the ban is to ‘advance the county’s interests in community aesthetics by the control of visual clutter, pedestrian and driver safety, and the protection of property values,'” the 31-page ruling stated. “Plaintiffs do not appear to contest that the county has actually shown a substantial interest underlying the billboard restriction.”
     Breyer denied Alameda’s request for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ equal protection claims and on their facial challenge regarding the unfettered discretion granted by the ordinance.
     “As the plaintiffs point out, the county did not address plaintiffs’ equal protection claims at all in their opening brief on this motion,” the ruling said.
     Alameda County and Citizens for Free Speech did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
     Interstate 580, an 80-mile east-west interstate in northern California, connects San Francisco to the Central Valley.

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