Ad ban will go back to court Justices pass decision on cigarette sign law in city to lower panel

Constitutionality is issue

Rule aimed to protect children

supporters confident it will stand

July 02, 1996|By Lyle Denniston and Kaana Smith | Lyle Denniston and Kaana Smith,SUN STAFF

The Supreme Court left Baltimore in doubt yesterday about its power to put strict limits on large outdoor signs that promote cigarette smoking, turning over the fate of the city's 2-year-old ordinance to a lower court.

In a two-sentence order, the justices told the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., to reconsider its ruling in August upholding the local billboard law.

The appeals court was told to study the ordinance by applying a decision by the justices in mid-May on a Rhode Island case that appeared to liberate advertisers from many government controls.

The dispute over the Baltimore cigarette ordinance has potential significance for the Clinton administration's wide-ranging plans to curb advertising and other promotion of cigarettes. A constitutional challenge to those plans is working its way toward the Richmond appeals court.

Yesterday's action by the Supreme Court paralleled an order the justices issued in May on another city ordinance -- a restriction on liquor billboards and other outdoor signs. Both measures were adopted with the aim of protecting the city's children.

Neither of the ordinances has been enforced since the City Council adopted them in 1994, because of the court battles over their constitutionality.

Mary Lou Kline, chairwoman of a Baltimore group that promoted the billboard laws, the Citywide Liquor Coalition for Better Laws and Regulations, said, "It just means we will have to wait a little longer to enforce the laws."

She said she had received many calls from neighbors wondering when billboard ads in their neighborhoods would be removed.

"I can turn off the television. I can not buy a magazine. But what do you do when your grandchildren walk outside and see these billboards?" she asked.

Ultimately, she said she is confident the ordinances will be upheld.

Kline added, "I just hope it doesn't take too long. I'm 58. I want to be alive when it happens."

Burton H. Levin, an assistant city solicitor who has been defending the local laws in federal courts, noted that the Supreme Court's action was not a final ruling on the constitutional issue. He, too, expressed confidence that both ordinances will survive the challenge.

The cigarette ordinance, approved by the City Council in March 1994, bans advertising in "publicly visible locations," including billboards and the sides of buildings.

But it makes exceptions for other displays, such as signs on city buses and highways.

The Supreme Court apparently had been holding the cigarette billboard case until after it had made a study of the division of power between the federal government and state and local governments.

One of the issues surrounding the Baltimore cigarette ordinance is whether it interferes with federal controls on cigarette labeling and advertising. The federal appeals court found that it did not.

Pub Date: 7/02/96

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