WASHINGTON -- Turning aside complaints by the advertising industry, the Supreme Court refused yesterday -- for the second time in three years -- to interfere with the power of cities to ban cigarette billboards and other outdoor signs.
The court, without explanation, declined to hear appeals that had challenged anti-cigarette advertising ordinances adopted by New York City and Chicago.
Its action came three years after the court refused to hear constitutional challenges to two Baltimore ordinances that were enacted in 1994 to insulate children from billboards and other signs that might entice them to smoke or drink.
As a result of these actions by the justices, city governments retain wide authority to restrict outdoor advertising of cigarettes. The restrictions on ads that many cities have imposed exceed the limits that the tobacco industry agreed to in its 1998 settlement of lawsuits by Maryland and other states.
In the Baltimore case, the ad industry had argued that billboard laws curb the First Amendment rights of tobacco companies. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, rejected this claim in 1996; the Supreme Court left that decision intact in 1997.
In the New York and Chicago cases, advertising groups argued that federal laws, dating to 1965, that govern the labeling and advertising of cigarettes went so far that no room was left for states or cities to regulate outdoor signs that promote smoking.
That argument was rejected, in separate rulings in the fall, by the 2nd and 7th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal. Those courts found that Congress had not assumed all authority for regulating cigarette ads.
In their unsuccessful appeals of those rulings, ad industry groups pointed out that lower courts are divided over how much authority local governments should have to control cigarette marketing. Apparently, though, the Supreme Court did not view that split as serious enough for the justices to get involved at this point.
The New York City and Chicago cases now return to lower courts, to decide additional constitutional arguments that the ad industry has remaining.