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Court Nixes City Ban on Billboards

Decision Says Cambridge Cannot Remove Non-Commercial Signs

By Todd F. Braunstein

A U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last week that Cambridge cannot remove the dozens of non-commercial billboards dotting its landscape.

The court ruled in an 18-page decision that the city's 1991 ordinance to that effect was a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

But the court did not strike down any aspect of the city's ordinance; it merely ruled that the city could not enforce one specific component.

Ackerley Communications, which owns 46 of the 51 billboards in Cambridge, claimed victory yesterday.

"We're very pleased with the decision by the justices. It was not unexpected," said Lou Nickinello, general manager of Ackerley. "The goal of the city was to take down billboards. That goal has not been achieved."

The city plans to appeal the decision for a hearing in front of the full U.S. Court of Appeals. But city officials said they were not dissatisfied with the ruling.

"The city is generally pleased with the ruling--none of the ordinance was stricken, and the city ordinance applies to most signs in Cambridge," said Arthur J. Goldberg, assistant city solicitor.

The Decision

The court ruled that Cambridge's ordinance is discriminatory when combined with a state law dealing with on-site signs, or signs that carry messages related to the activities conducted on the premises where the sign is located.

The state statute exempts all on-site signs, but not off-site ones, from the city ordinance.

"The division drawn here between those who may and may not use non-conforming signs in the future, for the most part, isolates business and property owners as a privileged class," according to the ruling.

The ruling added that the result of this privilege was more access to political and non-commercial messages for business and property owners.

"The First Amendment does not allow Cambridge to achieve its aesthetic objective by allocating the right to speak this way," the judges wrote.

But if the state law was changed to exempt only certain on-site signs--those larger than some limit, for example--then no conflict would exist.

Nickinello said that the city was wrong all along.

"We cautioned them that the best way to deal with it was to negotiate," Nickinello said. "But their goal was to put us out of business, but that cannot be done, should not be done and would not be done under the U.S. Constitution."

He cautioned that the city should return to the bargaining table rather than continue the fight, but expressed doubt that the anti-billboard movement was anything more than a political appeal.

"Why don't you sit across the table from us and tell us what the problems are, or is the issue political, being used to promote some politicians in the city?" he asked.

City councillors and officials have maintained that the billboards are unsightly--"visual pollution," in the words of longtime Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55--and that aesthetics are the only reason for the law

Nickinello said that the city was wrong all along.

"We cautioned them that the best way to deal with it was to negotiate," Nickinello said. "But their goal was to put us out of business, but that cannot be done, should not be done and would not be done under the U.S. Constitution."

He cautioned that the city should return to the bargaining table rather than continue the fight, but expressed doubt that the anti-billboard movement was anything more than a political appeal.

"Why don't you sit across the table from us and tell us what the problems are, or is the issue political, being used to promote some politicians in the city?" he asked.

City councillors and officials have maintained that the billboards are unsightly--"visual pollution," in the words of longtime Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55--and that aesthetics are the only reason for the law

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