Should Schaefer veto billboard bill?

May 26, 1993

The answer to the question posed above is "probably not." Gov. William Donald Schaefer has on his desk a bill that would give Baltimore City officials the power to ban liquor ads from billboards. Mr. Schaefer isn't under the gun to ban these liquor ads; he's simply being asked to sign enabling legislation giving city office holders the power to restrict this type of advertising.

Opponents of the bill have raised legitimate concerns about the impingement of free speech for commercial advertisers. They argue persuasively that the bill before the governor is filled with so many exemptions it doesn't come close to actually accomplishing the stated goal of the sponsors: banning liquor billboards in poor and black neighborhoods. For instance, the measure allows liquor ads on public buses and taxis; it allows liquor billboards at Orioles Park, Pimlico Race Course and Memorial Stadium. The bill may seem like a great idea, but in practice it may turn out to be a dud.

Yet that's really the city's dilemma. For the governor, the questions are simpler. The attorney general's office claims the bill is constitutional. This measure has the strong support of numerous city neighborhood groups who are enraged about being targeted by the liquor industry for saturation billboard advertising. By signing this bill, the governor would send a message to inner-city residents that he is sympathetic to their plight -- and an implicit message of disapproval to the billboard and liquor industries.

The rest would be up to the mayor and the city council. Members of the council are hot to rush through a bill banning liquor billboard ads. That would be a mistake. The controversy would immediately wind up in the courts, where it would remain for years. In fact, a recent Supreme Court ruling on commercial speech could put a major crimp in any city ordinance aimed at restricting billboard advertising in such a selective fashion.

A far wiser option would be the Teddy Roosevelt approach: speak softly -- but carry a big stick. The threat of banning liquor ads should be sufficient to pressure the advertising industry into voluntary compliance. Already, a coalition of advertising and liquor groups has told the governor it would work with inner-city communities to remove offensive ads and commit the group to a public education program to discourage underage drinking. Such an approach is worth a try. If the governor signs this bill, city officials would have the clout to get what they want from the advertising and liquor industries without engaging in a costly and time-consuming confrontation.

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