Like many cities, Los Angeles prohibits off-site commercial signs for purposes of promoting traffic safety and community aesthetic character. Lamar Central Outdoor, a billboard advertising company, challenged the city’s distinctions between on-site and off-site signage, and the distinction between commercial and noncommercial signage, as being content based under the free speech provisions of the California Constitution. Lamar’s case was based largely on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which held that facial distinctions between categories of speech are content based and subject to strict scrutiny, and Sorrell v. IMS Health, in which the Court applied a standard similar to that for noncommercial speech regulations to a regulation of commercial speech.
Some state courts, including the Oregon Supreme Court, have previously held that the distinctions between on-site and off-site signage and commercial and noncommercial speech are content based under state constitutional provisions. Public-sector interest groups were especially concerned about the outcome of this case, since a ruling in favor of Lamar could signal a significant shift in local governments’ ability to regulate off-site commercial billboards. The California Superior Court had previously held that Los Angeles’s ban on off-site commercial billboards violated the state constitution.
The California Court of Appeals rejected Lamar’s arguments, noting that neither Sorrell nor Reed expressly overturned decades of precedent regarding the distinction between commercial and noncommercial speech. The court also found Justice Alito’s Reed concurrence, which specifically asserted the constitutionality of the on-site/off-site distinction, persuasive. The California court also found that the Oregon precedent was inapplicable, given that California generally follows federal First Amendment jurisprudence.
This case received significant attention from interest groups on both sides, with amicus briefs filed on behalf of the American Planning Association, International Municipal Lawyers Association, California Sign Association, International Sign Association, League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, and the California Chapter of the American Planning Association.