Weeks before voters decide whether to create a billboard district, a promotions company has filed a federal lawsuit claiming The City’s sweeping sign ordinance violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
In 2002, voters adopted a law prohibiting new general advertising signs anywhere in San Francisco. Proposition D would loosen the ban to create a special sign district on blighted mid-Market Street between Fifth and Seventh streets.
Supporters say the billboards will revitalize the area, restore the historic theater district, and lure tenants and tourists back to businesses. Opponents claim the signs will invite more blight to the area, put pedestrians in peril by distracting drivers and waste electricity.
But the federal lawsuit, filed Sept. 22, challenges entire citywide sign ordinance.
The plaintiff, Contest Promotions LLC, runs contests in which shoppers are invited to stores to fill out entry forms for various prizes. The City has issued more than a dozen citations against the company, claiming it has violated the general advertising ban, according to the lawsuit.
The company claims the ordinance is unconstitutional and vague, and it’s asking a federal judge to decide whether the law deprives off-site advertisers of the same free speech rights landowners are allowed when posting on-premise signs.
In court filings, the company’s attorney, Paul Fisher of Newport Beach, asked the court to restrain city officials from removing signs or Contest Promotions may sue to recoup lost profits and good will. The City’s crackdown on off-site signs has made property owners reluctant to work with Contest Promotions for fear of prosecution, Fisher wrote.
Fisher did not return calls for comment.
Jack Song, deputy press secretary for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said he could not speculate on the outcome of the case or what it would mean for The City’s sign ordinance.
History of sign regulations in city
1906: San Francisco earthquake prompts sign regulations concerning structural integrity and fire hazards
1950s: Signage becomes larger and more prolific as car culture takes off; city begins to restrict their locations
1960s: San Francisco sign ordinance passes, prohibiting new signs near residential districts, schools, parks, freeways and city streets; it also identifies special sign districts
1985: Another wave of sign proliferation is due to a new method of changing copy using adhesive vinyl on walls and existing billboards; planning code is amended to require permits for all signs, not just those considered structures
1990s: Dot-com boom and live/work lofts provide opportunity for advertisers to add signs to the landscape
2001: New legislation created to offer stronger enforcement against illegal signs
2002: Voters pass Proposition G, prohibiting all new general advertising signs in city
2009: Voters to decide on mid-Market Street sign district; federal lawsuit challenges citywide sign ordinance
Source: Planning Department