Writer says city billboard ban is made to last

April 15, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

Behind the scenes of a highly public battle, Christopher J. Fritz worked quietly to craft legislation that would accomplish two purposes -- to outlaw billboards promoting alcohol and tobacco products and to withstand court challenges.

His work, along with that of community groups and health organizations, will change Baltimore's face, ridding neighborhoods of advertising often criticized for promoting health hazards while being nearly impossible to avoid.

Efforts by Mr. Fritz cleared the first hurdle when the City Council passed his bills banning billboards advertising those products in residential areas.

And recently a federal judge upheld the alcohol billboard ban despite an attack from a high-powered New York law firm representing Anheuser-Busch Co. and the city's largest billboard company, Penn Advertising.

"We did a lot of work to make sure that what we were doing fit into the parameters of what was constitutional. It was gratifying to see that the judge agreed," said Mr. Fritz, 38, a partner at the downtown law firm Gallagher, Evelius & Jones.

The bill's language was defended in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by an assistant city solicitor, Burton H. Levin. The tobacco industry has not yet challenged the city's restrictions against cigarette billboards.

Unusual territory

The community-based battle over the ads took Mr. Fritz into unusual territory. The Ellicott City resident and father of four has a background in First Amendment law but specializes in commercial, banking and real estate law.

The Citywide Liquor Coalition for Better Laws and Regulation pushed for the legislation, which was drafted pro bono by Mr. Fritz with the assistance of two other lawyers at the firm. Mr. Fritz said the work took "maybe two, three hundred hours." He estimated that the time was worth $50,000 to $70,000.

One of the firm's partners, Saul E. Gilstein, learned that the coalition needed legal help. He is a board member of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), the

coalition's umbrella organization. Mr. Gilstein and another partner, Richard O. Berndt, picked Mr. Fritz to head a team of lawyers that included Kathryn K. Hoskins and Julie E. Squire.

"You don't get that kind of opportunity often in your career to work on an issue that's both interesting and terrific," Mr. Fritz said.

He began representing the coalition last May, about the time the General Assembly was passing a measure enabling Baltimore to impose restrictions on alcohol billboards.

Hathaway C. Ferebee is executive director of CPHA, which has sought for more than three years to remove billboards it considers harmful.

Reflecting residents concerns

She said Mr. Fritz and his colleagues listened to the community group and came up with language that reflected its concerns.

"He took a tremendous amount of time to explain the legal issues. We became much more informed and aware of the legal ramifications," Ms. Ferebee said, expressing her confidence in the bill's legal sufficiency. "I have every expectation that if [Anheuser-Busch and Penn Advertising] choose to appeal that it will be upheld again."

Mr. Fritz said the legal task was a joint effort that relied on the opinions of the Baltimore City Solicitor's office and help from numerous community groups and health professionals seeking to eradicate many billboards in Baltimore's residential neighborhoods.

He said he agrees with the aim of the billboard ban to protect minors. While working on the legislation, he remembered the time five years ago that a package was delivered to his home, addressed to his 2 1/2 -year-old son. Inside was a package of cigarettes.

"That may have formed a background for my concern about the proliferation of cigarettes," he said.

Mr. Fritz is a Kansas City, Mo., native who grew up in Prince George's County, Cincinnati and Montgomery County. He graduated cum laude from the University of Maryland with a bachelor's degree in English in 1977. Three years later he graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center. He was an associate at the Baltimore firm Venable, Baetjer and Howard from 1980 to 1983 before leaving to join Gallagher.

Public interest

He says he believes in the near-absolute freedom of speech for political, religious and social purposes. One of his clients is the Maryland Catholic Conference, which he represents in First Amendment issues. But he said restrictions can be placed on commercial speech to protect the public's interests.

Mr. Fritz said he and backers of the legislation sought to show that pervasive outdoor advertising of liquor and tobacco products is harmful to minors who will be enticed to use products they cannot legally consume.

His seven-page bill restricting alcohol billboards reads almost like a court brief designed to persuade readers -- and courts. He uses U.S. Supreme Court opinions, statements by the former U.S. surgeon general and studies by the governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission and state Department of Education to illustrate the damaging effect of alcohol ads on minors.

"We didn't want to charge the message. We're just saying that this is a measure aimed at protecting minors," he said. "Billboards are unlike any other kind of advertising. They are unlike television, which parents can turn off, and unlike radio, which can be turned off. They have a unique character. They are

pervasive and can't be turned off."

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