Monday, November 10, 2008

The brave new world of billboards …

    If law can tell a homeowner that she can’t have a three-story house, or that her backyard shed is too big, or that she can’t paint her house pink, way can’t law restrict electronic billboards?  In Los Angeles, where many interact with society largely through a windshield (as do many Americans), a debate over the proliferation of electronic billboards is raging.
Billboard     Many years ago, I started but didn’t finish a short horror story about the future, in which most of our public space was occupied by various forms of high-tech advertising, and the only respite (for those handful of people for whom ubiquitous advertising seemed unwelcome) was personal video glasses.  Well, the future isn’t so distant anymore.  We now have the personal video glasses.  And in Los Angeles, many residents complain about a boom in shining electronic advertising signs.  One complication is a legal settlement (perhaps ill-advised) from a few years ago that gave some billboards owners the right to convert static billboards to electronic ones. 
     Before I could engage in too much snickering about this California story, I returned home from a trip to a nearby Florida beach island recently, and as I passed over a bridge to the mainland, a giant flashing billboard welcomed me back to the continent.  Before this hideous vision, my minds-eye idea of a “billboard” was rose-colored from my childhood experiences in riding to Florida and looking out for the kitschy-charming “South of the Border” signs.  But the modern versions hold no charm, in my opinion.  There is no Burma-Shave here. 
    One problem with a proposed legal effort in Los Angeles is the expense and time of monitoring and assessing the billboards.  One idea is to impose a fee on billboards to create a fund for monitoring.  Billboard opponents also argue that the new signs pose a greater hazard of distracting drivers than do static billboards, of course.  Will we see a rise in nuisance actions against billboards, and will a unified doctrine of urban billboard nuisance law develop?
   I conclude as I started:  If law can tell a homeowner what her house can look like, why can’t it regulate billboards?

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