Voters to decide future of billboards in St. Paul, Minn.

Friday, October 15, 1999

Citizens in St. Paul, Minn., will decide the fate of commercial billboards in November, after a federal judge blocked a request by outdoor advertising companies to remove the initiative from the ballot.

A proposed zoning ordinance would classify billboards as nuisances and allow city officials to remove existing billboards within 5 years. The zoning proposal would exempt “signs exclusively used for religious, political or other non-commercial messages.”

Eller Media Company, DeLite Outdoor Advertising, Inc. and the Outdoor Advertising Association of Minnesota, sued city officials in federal court on Sept. 16, claiming that the zoning proposal would violate First Amendment rights.

The advertising companies contended that the removal of commercial billboards would infringe on free-speech rights. However, U.S. District Judge David Doty ruled on Oct. 12 that the case was not yet ripe, e.g., ready for adjudication.

Doty acknowledged the First Amendment claims, writing that “the cornerstone of plaintiffs' argument is that the proposed ordinance abridges their First Amendment freedoms and that this abridgement itself constitutes an irreparable injury.”

Doty ruled, however, that only after the November ballot results are in will the outdoor advertising groups “know whether the ballot initiative poses a real threat.”

“The court cannot base a preliminary injunction on harm this speculative,” Doty wrote in Eller Media Company, Inc. v. Owusu.

John French, attorney for the advertising groups, says his clients will wait until November to see what course of action to take. “If we win the vote, then that settles the issue,” he said. “If we don't win in November, then we will push Judge Doty to decide whether the proposed ordinance is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.”

French noted that the judge did not consider the merits of the First Amendment arguments but only said that the case was not ripe. “We are still confident that we can show — if we have to — that this law is unconstitutional,” he said.

In his ruling, Doty also denied the request of the ballot initiators, Scenic St. Paul Campaign, to intervene in the case.

The group's attorney, Brian Bates, nevertheless praised the ruling. “The billboard industry's effort to disrupt the St. Paul election has been unsuccessful,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “The issue of what the city of St. Paul will look like will be squarely before the voters on Nov. 2.”