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NYC billboard rules don't violate First Amendment, 2nd Circuit says

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK — A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that the city did not violate the First Amendment by limiting the number of billboards along its roadways and parks.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the city’s goals of reducing visual clutter, improving the overall aesthetic appearance of the city and regulating traffic safety were reasonable.

“The fact that the city has chosen to value some types of commercial speech over others does not make the regulation irrational,” the appeals court said. It concluded that it did not matter that the city had enforced its regulations sporadically since 1940.

A lower court judge reached the same conclusion in the case last year. That ruling was appealed by companies, including Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. and Metro Fuel LLC, that market hundreds of billboards.

They said the city infringed on commercial-speech rights by stiffening rules against big billboards and lighted signs near parks and highways while letting smaller signs flourish on lampposts, taxicabs and phone booths. A lawyer for the companies did not return a phone message for comment in time for this story.

The appeals court said the city may allow advertising on street furniture while also reducing clutter on city sidewalks.

“Allowing some signs does not constitutionally require a city to allow all similar signs,” the three-judge panel said. “The city’s interests in aesthetics, preservation of neighborhood character and traffic safety continue to be advanced, even though limited and controlled advertising is permitted on street furniture.”

Since 1940, the city has banned commercial billboards that don’t advertise on-premises businesses near major roads.

Clear Channel derives about $10 million annually from operating 236 sign faces in the city. The appeals court said about 85 of the signs face arterial highways, including more than 70 expressways, parkways, boulevards and toll crossings.

Metro Fuel operates about 440 internally illuminated panel signs, each about 23 square feet, in the city. The 2nd Circuit said the city regulations impact 324 of Metro Fuel’s signs.

Edward Fortier, executive director of the Special Enforcement Unit at the Department of Buildings, said the ruling will let the department “more effectively enforce against these illegal signs and the companies behind them.”

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