453 U.S. 490 (1981), 80-195, Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego

Docket Nº:No. 80-195
Citation:453 U.S. 490, 101 S.Ct. 2882, 69 L.Ed.2d 800
Party Name:Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego
Case Date:July 02, 1981
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 490

453 U.S. 490 (1981)

101 S.Ct. 2882, 69 L.Ed.2d 800

Metromedia, Inc.


City of San Diego

No. 80-195

United States Supreme Court

July 2, 1981

Argued February 25, 1981



Appellee city of San Diego enacted an ordinance which imposes substantial prohibitions on the erection of outdoor advertising displays within the city. The stated purpose of the ordinance is "to eliminate hazards to pedestrians and motorists brought about by distracting sign displays" and "to preserve and improve the appearance of the City." The ordinance permits on-site commercial advertising (a sign advertising goods or services available on the property where the sign is located), but forbids other commercial advertising and noncommercial advertising using fixed-structure signs, unless permitted by 1 of the ordinance's 12 specified exceptions, such as temporary political campaign signs. Appellants, companies that were engaged in the outdoor advertising business in the city when the ordinance was passed, brought suit in state court to enjoin enforcement of [101 S.Ct. 2884] the ordinance. The trial court held that the ordinance was an unconstitutional exercise of the city's police power and an abridgment of appellants' First Amendment rights. The California Court of Appeal affirmed on the first ground alone, but the California Supreme Court reversed, holding, inter alia, that the ordinance was not facially invalid under the First Amendment.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded. Pp. 498-521; 527-540.

26 Cal.3d 848, 610 P.2d 407, reversed and remanded.

JUSTICE WHITE, joined by JUSTICE STEWART, JUSTICE MARSHALL, and JUSTICE POWELL, concluded that the ordinance is unconstitutional on its face. Pp. 498-521.

(a) As with other media of communication, the government has legitimate interests in controlling the noncommunicative aspects of billboards, but the First and Fourteenth Amendments foreclose similar interests in controlling the communicative aspects of billboards. Because regulation of the noncommunicative aspects of a medium often impinges to some degree on the communicative aspects, the courts must reconcile the government's regulatory interests with the individual's right to expression. Pp. 500-503.

(b) Insofar as it regulates commercial speech, the ordinance meets the constitutional requirements of Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v.

Page 491

Public Service Comm'n, 447 U.S. 557. Improving traffic safety and the appearance of the city are substantial governmental goals. The ordinance directly serves these goals, and is no broader than necessary to accomplish such ends. Pp. 503-512.

(c) However, the city's general ban on signs carrying noncommercial advertising is invalid under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The fact that the city may value commercial messages relating to on-site goods and services more than it values commercial communications relating to off-site goods and services does not justify prohibiting an occupant from displaying his own ideas or those of others. Furthermore, because, under the ordinance's specified exceptions, some noncommercial messages may be conveyed on billboards throughout the commercial and industrial zones, the city must allow billboards conveying other noncommercial messages throughout those zones. The ordinance cannot be characterized as a reasonable "time, place, and manner" restriction. Pp. 512-517.

(d) Government restrictions on protected speech are not permissible merely because the government does not favor one side over another on a subject of public controversy. Nor can a prohibition of all messages carried by a particular mode of communication be upheld merely because the prohibition is rationally related to a nonspeech interest. Courts must protect First Amendment interests against legislative intrusion, rather than defer to merely rational legislative judgments in this area. Since the city has concluded that its official interests are not as strong as private interests in on-site commercial advertising, it may not claim that those same official interests outweigh private interests in noncommercial communications. Pp. 517-521.

JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concluded that, in practical effect, the city's ordinance constitutes a total ban on the use of billboards to communicate to the public messages of general applicability, whether commercial or noncommercial, and that, under the appropriate First Amendment analysis, a city may totally ban billboards only if it can show that a sufficiently substantial governmental interest is directly furthered thereby, and that any more narrowly drawn restriction would promote less well the achievement of that goal. Under this test, San Diego's ordinance is invalid, since (1) the city failed to produce evidence demonstrating that billboards actually impair traffic safety in San Diego, (2) the ordinance is not narrowly drawn to accomplish the traffic safety goal, [101 S.Ct. 2885] and (3) the city failed to show that its asserted interest in esthetics was sufficiently substantial in its commercial and industrial areas. Nor would an ordinance totally banning commercial billboards but allowing noncommercial billboards be constitutional, since

Page 492

it would give city officials the discretion to determine in the first instance whether a proposed message is "commercial" or "noncommercial." Pp. 527-540.

WHITE, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which STEWART, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 521. STEVENS, J., while concurring in Parts I-IV of the plurality opinion, filed an opinion dissenting from Parts V-VII of the plurality opinion and from the judgment, post, p. 540. BURGER, C.J., post, p. 555, and REHNQUIST, J., post, p. 569, filed dissenting opinions.

Page 493

WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which JUSTICE STEWART, JUSTICE MARSHALL, and JUSTICE POWELL joined.

This case involves the validity of an ordinance of the city of San Diego, Cal., imposing substantial prohibitions on the erection of outdoor advertising displays within the city.


Stating that its purpose was "to eliminate hazards to pedestrians and motorists brought about by distracting sign displays" and "to preserve and improve the appearance of the City," San Diego enacted an ordinance to prohibit "outdoor advertising display signs."1 The California Supreme Court subsequently defined the term "advertising display sign" as

a rigidly assembled sign, display, or device permanently affixed to the ground or permanently attached to a building or other inherently permanent structure constituting, or used for the display of, a commercial or other advertisement to the public.

26 Cal.3d 848, 856, n. 2, 610 P.2d

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407, 410, n. 2 (1980). "Advertising displays signs" include any sign that "directs attention to a product, service or activity, event, person, institution or business."2

The ordinance provides two kinds of exceptions to the general prohibition: on-site signs and signs falling within 12 specified [101 S.Ct. 2886] categories. On-site signs are defined as those

designating the name of the owner or occupant of the premises upon which such signs are placed, or identifying such premises; or signs advertising goods manufactured or produced or services rendered on the premises upon which such signs are placed.

The specific categories exempted from the prohibition include: government signs; signs located at public bus stops; signs manufactured, transported, or stored within the city, if not used for advertising purposes; commemorative historical plaques; religious symbols; signs within shopping malls; for sale and for lease signs; signs on public and commercial

Page 495

vehicles; signs depicting time, temperature, and news; approved temporary, off-premises, subdivision directional signs; and "[t]emporary political campaign signs."3 Under this scheme, on-site commercial advertising is permitted,

Page 496

but other commercial advertising and noncommercial communications using fixed-structure signs are everywhere forbidden unless permitted by one of the specified exceptions.

Appellants are companies that were engaged in the outdoor advertising business in San Diego at the time the ordinance was passed. Each owns a substantial number of outdoor advertising displays (approximately 500 to 800) within the city. These signs are all located in areas zoned for commercial and industrial purposes, most of them on property leased by the owners to appellants for the purpose of maintaining billboards. Each sign has a remaining useful income-producing life of over 25 years, and each sign has a fair market value of between $2,500 and $25,000. Space on the signs was made available to "all comers," and the copy on each sign changed regularly, usually monthly.4 The nature of the outdoor advertising business was described by the parties as follows:

Outdoor advertising is customarily purchased on the basis of a presentation or campaign requiring multiple exposure. Usually a large number of signs in a variety of locations are utilized to communicate a particular advertiser's message. An advertiser will generally purchase [101 S.Ct. 2887] a "showing" which would involve the utilization of a specific number of signs advertising the same message in a variety of locations throughout a metropolitan area.5

Although the purchasers of advertising space on appellants' signs usually seek to convey a commercial message, their billboards have also been used to convey a broad range of noncommercial political and social messages.

Page 497

Appellants brought suit in state court to enjoin enforcement of the ordinance. After extensive discovery, the...

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