Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego
Annotate this Case
453 U.S. 490 (1981)
U.S. Supreme Court
Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego, 453 U.S. 490 (1981)
Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego
Argued February 25, 1981
Decided July 2, 1981
453 U.S. 490
Appellee city of San Diego enacted an ordinance which imposes substantial prohibitions on the erection of outdoor advertising displays within the city. The stated purpose of the ordinance is "to eliminate hazards to pedestrians and motorists brought about by distracting sign displays" and "to preserve and improve the appearance of the City." The ordinance permits on-site commercial advertising (a sign advertising goods or services available on the property where the sign is located), but forbids other commercial advertising and noncommercial advertising using fixed-structure signs, unless permitted by 1 of the ordinance's 12 specified exceptions, such as temporary political campaign signs. Appellants, companies that were engaged in the outdoor advertising business in the city when the ordinance was passed, brought suit in state court to enjoin enforcement of the ordinance. The trial court held that the ordinance was an unconstitutional exercise of the city's police power and an abridgment of appellants' First Amendment rights. The California Court of Appeal affirmed on the first ground alone, but the California Supreme Court reversed, holding, inter alia, that the ordinance was not facially invalid under the First Amendment.
26 Cal.3d 848, 610 P.2d 407, reversed and remanded.
JUSTICE WHITE, joined by JUSTICE STEWART, JUSTICE MARSHALL, and JUSTICE POWELL, concluded that the ordinance is unconstitutional on its face. Pp. 453 U. S. 498-521.
(a) As with other media of communication, the government has legitimate interests in controlling the noncommunicative aspects of billboards, but the First and Fourteenth Amendments foreclose similar interests in controlling the communicative aspects of billboards. Because regulation of the noncommunicative aspects of a medium often impinges to some degree on the communicative aspects, the courts must reconcile the government's regulatory interests with the individual's right to expression. Pp. 453 U. S. 500-503.
(b) Insofar as it regulates commercial speech, the ordinance meets the constitutional requirements of Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v.
Public Service Comm'n, 447 U. S. 557. Improving traffic safety and the appearance of the city are substantial governmental goals. The ordinance directly serves these goals, and is no broader than necessary to accomplish such ends. Pp. 453 U. S. 503-512.
(c) However, the city's general ban on signs carrying noncommercial advertising is invalid under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The fact that the city may value commercial messages relating to on-site goods and services more than it values commercial communications relating to off-site goods and services does not justify prohibiting an occupant from displaying his own ideas or those of others. Furthermore, because, under the ordinance's specified exceptions, some noncommercial messages may be conveyed on billboards throughout the commercial and industrial zones, the city must allow billboards conveying other noncommercial messages throughout those zones. The ordinance cannot be characterized as a reasonable "time, place, and manner" restriction. Pp. 453 U. S. 512-517.
(d) Government restrictions on protected speech are not permissible merely because the government does not favor one side over another on a subject of public controversy. Nor can a prohibition of all messages carried by a particular mode of communication be upheld merely because the prohibition is rationally related to a nonspeech interest. Courts must protect First Amendment interests against legislative intrusion, rather than defer to merely rational legislative judgments in this area. Since the city has concluded that its official interests are not as strong as private interests in on-site commercial advertising, it may not claim that those same official interests outweigh private interests in noncommercial communications. Pp. 453 U. S. 517-521.
JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concluded that, in practical effect, the city's ordinance constitutes a total ban on the use of billboards to communicate to the public messages of general applicability, whether commercial or noncommercial, and that, under the appropriate First Amendment analysis, a city may totally ban billboards only if it can show that a sufficiently substantial governmental interest is directly furthered thereby, and that any more narrowly drawn restriction would promote less well the achievement of that goal. Under this test, San Diego's ordinance is invalid, since (1) the city failed to produce evidence demonstrating that billboards actually impair traffic safety in San Diego, (2) the ordinance is not narrowly drawn to accomplish the traffic safety goal, and (3) the city failed to show that its asserted interest in esthetics was sufficiently substantial in its commercial and industrial areas. Nor would an ordinance totally banning commercial billboards but allowing noncommercial billboards be constitutional, since
it would give city officials the discretion to determine in the first instance whether a proposed message is "commercial" or "noncommercial." Pp. 453 U. S. 527-540.
WHITE, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which STEWART, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 453 U. S. 521. STEVENS, J., while concurring in Parts I-IV of the plurality opinion, filed an opinion dissenting from Parts V-VII of the plurality opinion and from the judgment, post, p. 453 U. S. 540. BURGER, C.J., post, p. 453 U. S. 555, and REHNQUIST, J., post, p. 453 U. S. 569, filed dissenting opinions.