Judge upholds city ban on liquor billboards

March 29, 1994|By Marcia Myers and Kim Clark | Marcia Myers and Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writers

A federal judge yesterday upheld Baltimore's ban on liquor billboards, rejecting claims by a beer maker and a billboard company that the ordinance prohibits free speech.

"We feel wonderful," said Bev Thomas, chairman of the Baltimore City-Wide Liquor Coalition for Better Laws and Regulation. "It is just more evidence that communities can empower themselves and make a difference for our children."

The ban, enacted in January, outlaws alcohol advertising on billboards except in stadiums and heavy industrial zones. It had long been sought by community activists who claimed the ads target low-income neighborhoods and encourage youths to drink.

Penn Advertising and Anheuser-Busch sued to overturn the ordinance by claiming that it violates free speech and discriminates against outdoor advertisers.

But in a ruling yesterday, Senior U.S. District Judge John R. Hargrove dismissed the case. He cited numerous legal precedents for the ban and said it was a "well-settled" principle that commercial speech has limited protections.

In addition, he noted that billboards advertising alcoholic beverages may appropriately face restrictions when they are aimed at depressed neighborhoods.

"Billboards are conspicuously absent from more affluent communities," he wrote. In inner-city neighborhoods, "they present a stark contrast to adolescents between the lifestyle depicted in the advertisement and the actual neighborhood surrounding them, thereby enhancing the attractiveness of the advertised product."

Attorneys for the two companies had not seen the ruling yesterday afternoon and said no decision had been made on whether to appeal.

"We have a major investment here, and we have to figure out how to protect it," said Fred Lauer, Penn's director of governmental affairs. Anheuser-Busch attorney John Walsh was unavailable for comment.

What Penn wants to protect, he said, is a group of clients that provides about one-fifth of the company's revenues.

Alcohol advertisers spent approximately $1.7 million on Penn's billboard space last year, Mr. Lauer said. Penn is afraid the liquor companies will abandon billboards altogether if the ban is upheld.

City officials questioned yesterday Penn's projected losses, noting that any other advertiser -- from automobile dealers to zipper companies -- could rent inner-city billboards from Penn instead.

They expect the companies to file an appeal of the ruling and said that as a result, despite yesterday's victory, liquor advertising is likely to appear on city billboards until the companies exhaust their appeals, which will take at least nine months.

Saying he was "very pleased" by the decision, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke promised to "continue an aggressive defense of this legislation because we think it is the best thing to do for our citizens."

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