Thursday, August 17, 2017
Ninth Circuit Upholds San Francisco Sign Ordinance Against First Amendment Challenge
In its opinion in Contest Promotions v. City and County of San Francisco, a panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld San Francisco's sign ordinances prohibiting off-site advertising (billboards) with an exception for noncommercial notices.
The plaintiff company is an advertiser that rents the right to post signs on the premises of third-party businesses advertising "contests in which passing customers can participate by going
inside the business and filling out a form." It challenged two components of the Planning Code ordinances passed in 2002:
- a general prohibition of new billboards and other off-site signs with a general permission for business on-site signs advertising that business;
- an exemption for noncommercial signs.
Judge Susan Graber, writing for the unanimous panel and affirming the trial judge's dismissal of the complaint, rejected the plaintiff's primary argument that the First Amendment intermediate scrutiny standard of Central Hudson & Electric Corporation v. Public Service Commission of New York (1980) was elevated by IMS v. Sorrell (2011) and Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015). It relied on the June en banc Ninth Circuit in Retail Digital Network v. Prieto, rejecting a First Amendment challenge to a California prohibition of alcohol manufacturers and wholesalers from providing anything of value to retailers in exchange for advertising their alcohol products, in which the challengers had also argued that Sorrell required heightened scrutiny. It also relied on a 2016 panel opinion in Lone Star Security and Video v. City of Los Angeles, in which the Ninth Circuit upheld L.A.'s mobile billboard ordinances against a First Amendment challenge distinguishing Reed v. Town of Gilbert.
As in RDN v. Prieto and Lone Star Security and Video, once the Central Hudson standard was deemed appropriate, its four-step application was fairly straightforward. That the plaintiff's advertisements were legal and nonmisleading was not in dispute. Second, the court easily found that "a locality’s asserted interests in safety and aesthetics" met the requirement of substantial interests. The third step and fourth steps, both relating to the "fit" and often, as the court acknowledges, not "entirely discrete," were also satisfied. The court found that the ordinance directly advanced the government interests and there was no "constitutional infirmity in the ordinance’s failure to regulate every sign that it might have reached, had Defendant (or its voters) instead enacted another law that exhausted the full
breadth of its legal authority." The court rejected the plaintiff's analogy to City of Cincinnati v. Discovery Network, Inc. (1993) because in Discovery Network the newsracks that were banned were a small portion of newsracks (thus not actually serving the purpose of the ordinance) and that there was no requirement to ban all advertising, including noncommercial to achieve the purpose. In essence, the court found that San Francisco's ordinances were not underinclusive.
While the case seems relatively straightforward, it is yet another indication that the appellate courts are not interpreting Sorrell and Reed as expansively as they might and Central Hudson remains entrenched.
[image: "Ice Sitting Contest," N Y Public Library Collection, via]