Allen Smith on Metromedia

Insider has asked Allen Smith to write a series of articles on landmark out of home advertising legal cases. Allen Smith is a eminent domain and condemnation expert at Settlepou, a Dallas law firm.  For more information on Mr Smith, please see Smith’s Settlepou bio.  Today Smith discusses Metromedia v City of San Diego.

Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego is the first significant First Amendment billboard case before the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1981, the City of San Diego argued to impose substantial prohibitions on the erection of outdoor advertising displays within the City. The stated justifications were “to eliminate hazards to pedestrians and motorists brought about by distracting sign displays” and “to preserve and improve the appearance of the City.”

In response, a coalition of businesses argued that the imposition was an unconstitutional exercise of the City’s police power—specifically, a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment (Freedom of Speech). The Court acknowledged billboards are a well-established medium of communication used to convey a broad range of different kinds of messages. Justice Clark’s dissent notes that San Diego billboards have been used to encourage the use of seat belts, to support and promote a variety of charitable and socially-related endeavors, and to provide directions to the traveling public.

The Court ruled that the City of San Diego’s imposition on billboards was a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment.  The Court found that commercial speech on billboards can be regulated by local governments, but such regulations must meet First Amendment standards. In this case, the City of San Diego’s regulations impermissibly treated noncommercial speech different than commercial speech. For example, according to the City’s ordinance, an off-premise noncommercial sign would be prohibited while, with arguably the same safety concerns and aesthetic harm, an on-premise commercial sign would not be prohibited.

We will visit decisions since Metromedia in future editions to further explain the development of billboard law in the U.S. Supreme Court.


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