Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego

PETITIONER: Metromedia, Inc. et al.
RESPONDENT: City of San Diego et al.
LOCATION: City of San Diego

DOCKET NO.: 80-195
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of California

CITATION: 453 US 490 (1981)
ARGUED: Feb 25, 1981
DECIDED: Jul 02, 1981

C. Alan Sumption - on behalf of the Appellees
Floyd Abrams - on behalf of the Appellants

Facts of the case

The city of San Diego banned most outdoor advertising display signs in order to improve the city's appearance and prevent dangerous distractions to motorists. Only "onsite" billboards with a message relating to the property they stood on would be permitted. Upon petition by a coalition of businesses owning advertising signs, a trial court ruled that the ban was an unconstitutional exercise of the city's police powers and hindered First Amendment rights of the businesses. The California Court of Appeals affirmed that the city had exceeded its police powers, but the California Supreme Court reversed this judgment.


Does a city ban on "offsite" outdoor advertising signs violate First and Fourteenth Amendment provisions for free speech?

Media for Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 25, 1981 in Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments first this morning in Metromedia, Incorporated v. City of San Diego.

Mr. Abrams, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Floyd Abrams:

Mr Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This is an appeal from a decision of the California Supreme Court upholding against constitutional challenge a San Diego ordinance the purpose and effect of which is to prohibit all off-premise outdoor advertising within the City of San Diego.

There has been some dispute between the parties in the briefs as to the precise scope of the statute and I would like to begin my argument with that.

The parties have stipulated that San Diego, now the eighth largest city in the nation and the second in California, is a sprawling 320-mile city filled with hundreds of miles of streets, with a significant industrial and commercial area, and as well, of course, with park areas, beach areas, residential and other areas.

Warren E. Burger:

Would it make any difference, Mr. Abrams, if this were a town of 10,000?

Floyd Abrams:

It would make a difference only in this sense, Mr. Chief Justice, we do think that it is relevant that this is a case which arises entirely out of a ban which takes place in an industrial and commercial area, in part because we are met with the argument by our opponents that outdoor advertising is in its entirety commercial speech, which it is not.

But even if it were commercial speech, or even if it is, as it is, more commercial speech than other kinds of speech, then it's surely relevant that we deal here only with an industrial and commercial area.

In a smaller community which had an industrial and commercial area, we would be urging on you virtually the same arguments as today.

It is conceivable that in some other area, on some different facts, absent the stipulated record here today, that a balance could conceivably be struck in a different fashion than we are urging on you today.

It is conceivable that that could be the case in an area of 10,000 people rather than a large industrial city.

Potter Stewart:

Mr. Abrams, I gather that you concede, at least implicitly, that outdoor advertising could constitutionally be banned in a residential area?

Floyd Abrams:

We do concede, Mr. Justice Stewart, that it could be banned in certain residential areas, particularly, for example, a residential area as part of a larger community where it is allowed elsewhere; yes.

Potter Stewart:

Some communities are zoned entirely residential?

Floyd Abrams:

Yes, and--

Potter Stewart:

Some governmental entities are, almost?

Floyd Abrams:

--All I'm saying is that we think it does depend, as a number of the cases of this Court in other areas have indicated, upon the relationship between one area and another.

If there's a residential area of a city, for example, we certainly do concede that that is doable.

Potter Stewart:

Some governmental entities are so-called bedroom communities, under the law entirely residential.

Floyd Abrams:

Yes, and that does not raise in the same acute fashion the issue--

Potter Stewart:

So the size and characteristics of San Diego are relevant?

Floyd Abrams:

--Yes, sir.

Warren E. Burger:

Would that mean that in an area that was mixed, that is, residences and stores and theaters and the usual mix, you'd have a different rule?

Floyd Abrams:

We think the rule of law that we would urge on you today would be the same.

The only thing that would be different is that to the extent that there is any balance to be struck at all, I must acknowledge to you that it is at least conceivable on a different factual record that the balance could be struck in a different way than we would urge on you today.

If you do anything less than establish a per se rule that under no circumstances may outdoor advertising be banned... and we have not gone that far in our advocacy view... implicit in that is that there could be some circumstance, and that there would be some circumstance, in which it could be proper to ban outdoor advertising.

Now, there are factors we think that you should consider.

There are things to be weighed in making that decision, but one of them, we think, is that this arises in a commercial and industrial area of a large urban community.

I wish to emphasize that based on the stipulated facts we deal here with a case where San Diego has 2.8 percent of the city which is zoned commercial and industrial.