Northwestern High students monitor ads on Baltimore billboards for school credit They look for tobacco, liquor signs that break law


Standing on the corner of Park Heights Avenue and Cold Spring Lane, Lamar Young, 17, spots a billboard advertising Hennessy cognac and describes it as "an affront" to his neighborhood.

When Lamar and two fellow Northwestern High School students started counting Baltimore's cigarette and alcohol billboards in early February, this advertisement was not there. But it showed up two weeks later, he says, as an addition to the street scene.

"There's a school right over there," Lamar says, pointing to the St. Ambrose church steeple towering over a Roman Catholic school. "Children pass by it every day."

Monitoring billboards for school credit in a University of Maryland community law program has been an eye-opening experience in the political process for Lamar, Jacquetta Robinson, 17, and Thomas Reaves, also 17.

They all plan to go to City Hall on March 31 for a showdown between anti-billboard activists and Universal Outdoor, a large advertising company based in Chicago, for the first zoning hearing on the city's 1994 laws banning certain tobacco and liquor billboards.

The teen-agers are trying to make a difference, however small, to the hearing's outcome by putting their voices and letters on the public record. "Unlike television, billboards aren't something you can turn off," states Lamar's letter to the zoning board.

The board will hear Universal Outdoor's appeal on seven contested billboards cited by city officials as violations of the 1994 laws. The recently posted Hennessy advertisement, featuring a trumpet player, is not one of the seven cases before the board.

Before Jacquetta started the weekly program, she says, "I didn't know it was illegal" to advertise liquor and alcohol on billboards on most city streets -- except for heavy industrial, interstate and downtown areas -- because she grew up with them as part of her environment.

"I still remember the alcohol billboards I've seen as a child. They show beautiful people with beautiful teeth having a wonderful time," she wrote in her letter to the zoning board. "These billboards do not show the actual effects of drinking alcohol."

She is preparing a short speech she plans to make at the zoning board hearing. Thomas, who spent a free Saturday morning scouting new liquor billboards, believes that a law similar to the federal "three strikes and you're out" criminal law should apply to companies that violate the 1994 ordinances.

A soft-spoken teen-ager who says the strongest stuff he imbibes is candy cigarettes and root beer, Thomas says "all the pretty people" in cigarette advertisements, as well as the industry's animal characters, "have been burned into memories."

Steve Southern, Baltimore manager of Universal Outdoor, says the issue is whether the contracts for the seven billboards are legally valid.

"All the billboards that we've been cited on deal with long-term, grandfathered contracts signed prior to the enactment dates of the 1994 legislation," he says.

"That's what the whole argument is," Southern adds. Universal Outdoor has been cited for dozens more violations that have yet to go through the zoning appeals process.

Baltimore's groundbreaking billboard ordinances did not go into effect until May 1997, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the 1994 city laws. Since then, several other cities, including Chicago, have passed laws similar to Baltimore's. "Unfortunately, we were the trendsetter," says Southern.

Terry Hickey, director of the community law program at the UM School of Law, says of the three teens, "They're seeing at the grass-roots level that they can be effective by being knowledgeable."

It will be the first trip to a City Hall hearing for Lamar, Jacquetta and Thomas.

"It's extremely valuable for the community to hear their perspective," says Frank Vespe, vice president of Scenic America, a nonprofit conservation group in Washington. "These are the folks that live there. They can't vote, but their voices matter, too."

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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