Sopp Signs filed five applications for billboard permits with the City of Buford, who denied the request because the billboards failed to comply with the City Sign Ordinance. Signs of the type requested by Sopp are generally required to be no more that 200 square feet and 20 feet in height. The City’s Zoning Board of Appeals denied Sopp’s appeal. It was noted that the Sign Ordinance was designed to promote public safety and preserve the aesthetics of the City.
Prior to Sopp, the City had approved a billboard application submitted by H & B Property Investors, LLC. The City ultimately revoked the permit when it realized that the proposed billboard violated the sign ordinance. The issue was eventually resolved.
Sopp filed a lawsuit against the City alleging Free Speech and Equal Protection Violations. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The Court first evaluated Sopp’s First Amendment Claim. The Court noted, “the First Amendment offers less protection to commercial speech than to noncommercial speech. To restrict commercial speech, the City must meet a two-part test. First, the restriction must directly advance the state interest involved; the regulation may not be sustained if it provides only ineffective or remote support for the government’s purpose. Second, if the government interest could be served as well by a mote limited restriction on commercial speech, the excessive restrictions cannot survive.” The Court recognized traffic safety and aesthetics as “substantial” goals and further noted that “the least restrictive means is not the standard; instead, the case law requires a reasonable fit between the legislature’s ends and the means chosen to accomplish those ends, … a means narrowly tailored to achieve the desired objective.”
The Court held that the Sign Ordinance was directly tied to traffic safety and aesthetics. Furthermore, the Ordinance allows other types of advertisement and allows billboards within sigh of the highway. Smaller signs are also allowed in other locations throughout the city. Therefore, the Court found no First Amendment violation.
Next, the Court turned to the Equal Protection claim. Sopp had to establish that it was treated differently from other similarly situated individuals, and that the Defendant unequally applied a facially neutral ordinance for the purpose of discriminating against the Plaintiff. In Roma Outdoors Creations, Inc. v. City of Cumming, 599 F.Supp.2d 1332 (N.D.Ga.2009), the court noted “the fact that administrators in certain areas may have made errors in the application of the regulations does not mean that the correct evaluation made in plaintiff’s case violated equal protection.”
In this case, the City mistakenly issued a permit for a billboard but revoked it when they realized it violated the Sign Ordinance. Therefore, there was no issue of material fact. The Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendant.
Sopp Signs, LLC v. City of Buford Georgia, 2012 WL 2681417 (N. D. Ga. 7/6/2012)