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Maryland high court upholds Baltimore billboard tax

Maryland’s highest court has upheld a tax imposed by the city of Baltimore on selling billboard advertising.

The Court of Appeals last week rejected arguments by Clear Channel that the tax violates constitutional provisions that protect freedom of speech.

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The appeals court ruled 6-1 that the tax ordinance was not subject to heightened scrutiny under the First Amendment because it did not single out the press, target a small group of speakers or discriminate on the basis of the content of speech.

The Baltimore City Council passed an ordinance in 2013 imposing a tax on the selling of advertising on billboards that are not located on the premises where the goods or services being advertised are offered or sold.

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The appeals court noted that the ordinance affects 760 signs operated by Clear Channel and three other entities, and that Clear Channel’s billboards account for about 90% of the tax revenue generated by the ordinance. The court also noted that the highly concentrated billboard market in Baltimore may be due in part to the fact that the city banned construction of new billboards in 2000.

Clear Channel’s challenge to the ordinance had previously been rejected in federal court, the Maryland Tax Court, the Baltimore City Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals.

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