Billboard Ban Clears High Court

Decision Opens Way For City To Restrict Cigarette, Liquor Ads

To Protect The Children

Baltimore Ordinances Survive Challenge As 1st Amendment Issue

April 29, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After three years of battling advertisers in court, Baltimore gained the Supreme Court's permission yesterday to start banning billboards and other outdoor signs that promote cigarettes and liquor.

The court refused to hear constitutional challenges to the two 1994 ordinances, which were designed to insulate children from at least some advertising that might entice them to smoke or drink.

Opponents had argued unsuccessfully that the Baltimore ordinances violated the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

The court's order clears the way for city zoning officials to enforce the ordinances immediately.

Officials are expected first to work out a plan to designate the areas of the city where billboards or signs would have to come down.

Burton H. Levin, principal counsel in Baltimore's law department, said the Supreme Court action leaves intact court decisions "which will surely be followed by scores of cities and counties across the nation."

Although the justices wrote no opinion and made no comment on the ordinances, yesterday's action appeared to be a signal that government may use the protection of minors as a rationale for imposing strict curbs on commercial marketing of harmful products.

A federal appeals court that twice upheld the two Baltimore laws ruled that "children deserve special solicitude" from government because they are too young to assess commercial messages.

The Clinton administration joined in defending the ordinances. The administration said it viewed the case as a test of government's power to protect children -- the same justification the administration is using for its restrictions on tobacco advertising and marketing, some of which have already taken effect.

The appeals court that upheld Baltimore's billboard restrictions will also hear an appeal later this year from the Clinton administration. The administration is seeking to revive its power to regulate tobacco advertising, which a federal judge in North Carolina struck down last week.

Levin, who defended the Baltimore ordinances throughout the three-year court contest, praised the "grass-roots advocates" who began the drive for the laws, calling them the key to the "legislation to rid our community of billboards that are harmful to children."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke also hailed the "truly grass-roots effort" behind the laws, saying that "without the volunteers and neighborhoods, it would not have happened."

Schmoke, attending the Presidents' Summit for America's Future in Philadelphia, said he was "ecstatic" over the court's action, especially on the day when the nation's leaders were seeking to promote volunteerism.

One of the neighborhood activists, Mary Lou Kline, chairwoman of the Baltimore Citywide Liquor Coalition for Better Laws and Regulations, said: "We've worked so hard and prayed so hard. I'm extremely happy, and I thank God."

The ordinances generally ban ads for alcoholic beverages and cigarettes from "publicly visible locations" -- specifically, outdoor billboards, sides of buildings and free-standing signboards.

The ban does not apply to signs in the downtown business district, electric signs on stores that sell liquor, signs on city transit buses, taxis or liquor delivery trucks, signs at Camden Yards and Memorial Stadium or signs next to interstate highways.

Nor do the curbs apply to liquor or cigarette ads in newspapers and magazines or on radio or television.

There are areas of the city where cigarette and liquor signs can remain, said Steve Southern, general manager of the Baltimore office of Lamar Advertising, which this month took over the city's Penn Advertising agency, one of the challengers of the ordinances.

Lamar, Southern said, will be able to display only 244 advertisements legally -- about 20 percent of its local inventory. That figure, he added, may have to be reduced further.

Anheuser-Busch Inc., the beer company, another challenger, voiced disappointment over the Supreme Court order.

But a company vice president, Stephen K. Lambright, noted that the court's action was confined to the Baltimore ordinances and was not a specific endorsement of the appeals court's legal reasoning. As a result, he reasoned, the scope of First Amendment protection of advertising remains to be decided in some future case.

In upholding the ordinances, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the laws satisfied the First Amendment because they were limited in scope, leaving ample opportunity to promote cigarettes and liquor by other means, and because they were designed to protect children from harmful substances.

The courts, the appeals court added, should not second-guess the city's notion that such curbs would reduce childrens' access to cigarettes and liquor, which the law forbids them to have.

The challengers contended that city officials had not proved that the ordinances would actually reduce such access.

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