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Los Angeles Wins Round in Fight Over Billboards

(CN) - Los Angeles can once again enforce bans on certain kinds of billboards, including those facing the freeway and large signs hung from building walls. The 9th Circuit rejected companies' claim that the restrictions stifled commercial speech in violation of the First Amendment.

A three-judge panel in Pasadena lifted an injunction barring the city from enforcing bans on three types of billboards: freeway-facing signs, so-called "supergraphic" billboards and off-site billboards.

The first restriction bars billboards within 2,000 feet of -- and "viewed primarily from" -- a freeway or freeway entrances or exits. Supergraphic billboards are large signs, usually made of vinyl, mesh or canvas and hung with cables from the sides of buildings. The city also eliminated off-site billboards, which advertise a business or product in another location.

Pennsylvania-based World Wide Rush challenged the restrictions, claiming Los Angeles made exceptions for some billboards despite the ban. For example, the city allows billboards near the Staples Center sports arena and has moved billboards from Santa Monica Boulevard to an area near Fifteenth Street, where they still face a freeway.

Similarly, the city makes exceptions to the supergraphic and off-site bans, exempting "signs that are specifically permitted pursuant to a legally adopted specific plan, supplemental use district or an approved development agreement."

The district court agreed with World Wide Rush that these inconsistencies rendered the bans constitutionally invalid.

"The city has set up a system that allows it to eliminate speech based on content," Chief U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins wrote.

Collins ordered the city to stop enforcing these restrictions and held the city in civil contempt for continuing to issue citations.

Billboard companies responded to the favorable ruling by putting up a rash of new supergraphic signs and filing copycat lawsuits, seeking injunctions to protect their own signs from citations.

On appeal, the 9th Circuit pointed out that "restrictions on billboards advance cities' substantial interests in aesthetics and safety." Los Angeles' few exceptions do not undermine those interests, but were "made for the express purpose of advancing those very interests," the court ruled.

"Allowing billboards at the Staples Center was an important element of a project to remove blight and dangerous conditions from downtown Los Angeles," Judge Kim Wardlaw explained.

The circuit panel rejected the lower court's all-or-none approach for a more comprehensive view of the restrictions, saying Los Angeles gave "a convincing rationale" for its exemptions.

And because the court overturned the injunction, it also reversed the contempt finding against Los Angeles.

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