Billboard law passes free speech test

June 08, 1996

YOUR MAY 23 editorial proclaiming Baltimore's billboard laws dead in the water after a recent First Amendment decision by the Supreme Court is overly pessimistic.

Baltimore's laws restricting the placement of billboard ads for alcohol and cigarettes in specific neighborhoods in the city (which were passed two years ago) are radically different from the Rhode Island law recently struck down by the Supreme Court in 44 Liquormart.

That case involved a total ban on off-site price advertising for alcohol products enacted in the 1950s. Trying to justify this 40-year-old law under modern First Amendment standards was impossible.

Rhode Island was forced to argue that lack of price advertising would mean lack of price competition, which would mean increased prices, which would result in lower demand, which would mean reduced drinking.

As the Supreme Court pointed out, a simple tax on alcohol would have been much more direct and effective.

Baltimore's laws were conceived and enacted in keeping with modern First Amendment principles.

These city laws were carefully thought-out responses to a clearly identified problem, billboard ads that encourage unlawful, underage drinking and smoking.

They are not blanket bans. They apply only to outdoor advertisements and only in certain parts of the city where children are likely to be affected by them. They carefully target their goal, and leave a variety of other means of communication open to commercial speakers.

The federal Fourth Circuit Court will once again review Baltimore's laws, but there is nothing new in the Rhode Island case to suggest they will be overturned.

Baltimore's laws strike a proper balance of the rights of commercial speakers and of the citizenry at large, who are concerned about predatory ads directed at our children.

Mary Lou Kline

Christopher Fritz

Baltimore

The writers are, respectively, chairperson of the Baltimore Citywide Liquor Coalition and partner at Gallagher, Evelius & Jones.

Pub Date: 6/08/96

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