Making Sense of Billboard Law: Justifying Prohibitions and Exemptions

Part I of this Note surveys the trends in the aesthetic regulation of billboards, culminating in the Supreme Court of California’s decision in Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego, and the Supreme Court’s review of that decision. Part II analyzes the five Metromedia opinions in order to present properly the contemporary debate over billboard law. It inquires whether a sign prohibition should hinge on the commercial or noncommercial status of the targeted signs. Part III indicates how ambiguities in the Metromedia plurality opinion have produced the conflict in lower courts between the commercial/noncommercial distinction and the onsite/ off site distinction, and examines some of the problems created by the application of these distinctions. Part IV argues that the Constitution should protect only those signs that cannot be replaced by alternative means of communication. It repudiates the commercia/noncommercial distinction for failing to protect signs according to this standard, and criticizes the onsite/ offsite distinction for affording special protection to only one type of sign for which alternative means are lacking. Part IV then argues that the identifying/nonidentifying distinction would serve as an appropriate check on the wide discretion governments need to address the aesthetic problems posed by billboards.