Court upholds city ban on tobacco, alcohol signs


A federal appeals court yesterday upheld Baltimore's ban on alcohol and tobacco billboards in an opinion that also could boost the Clinton administration's attempts to curb advertising that encourages teen smoking.

The Clinton effort has been challenged in two lawsuits in Greensboro, N.C., the same jurisdiction in which yesterday's ruling was made. The ruling, by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., gives an indication of how the circuit reacts to attempts to control tobacco advertising when it targets children.

While regulation of tobacco has been upheld in court, the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has been somewhat more protective of commercial speech in advertising than it had been.

Lawyers for the advertisers called the ruling "extraordinary." No decision had been made on whether to appeal.

NTC "This decision is not consistent with very clear-cut decisions by the Supreme Court," said Eric Rubin, an attorney for Penn Advertising, the billboard firm that challenged Baltimore's ordinance.

The company's lawyers had argued that the law violates free speech, and that Baltimore failed a basic legal test in passing the law -- that is, providing evidence that a ban on the billboards would have the desired impact on young people.

Mr. Rubin said the appeals court had given the city leeway in justifying its ban. "If the city of Baltimore says the sky is green, the sky is green."

Senior City Solicitor Burton H. Levin called the decision a "major First Amendment ruling."

"It was a community-based judgment that had impetus from a lot of groups," he said. "As long as City Council acted with reasonable legislative judgment, the court must defer."

He said the case was being watched in cities around the country.

In Cincinnati, officials passed a similar law banning tobacco advertising, which also was challenged in court. The matter was put on hold pending the appeals court ruling.

A coalition of community groups had pushed for the ban for two years, arguing that the ads target the young in poor and predominantly black neighborhoods.

"The billboards were not only a blight to the community, they sent the wrong message," said Tina Thompson, president of the Fulton Community Association Inc. and one of the most vocal opponents of the signs.

"It was a long, hard fight," she said. "I'm ecstatic with this decision."

The city voted early last year to ban the billboards on the grounds that they enticed young people to smoke and drink. It was the first law of its kind in the country.

Soon after, Penn challenged the law on constitutional grounds.

In its unanimous decision, a three-judge panel ruled that the law merely limits billboard exposure to minors, while still allowing sufficient advertising for alcohol and tobacco products in other parts of the city.

In lower court rulings upholding the ban, judges cited numerous legal precedents and said it was a "well-settled" principle that commercial speech has limited protections.

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