San Juan Capistrano stops enforcing advertising ban

October 11, 2016 | By LARRY SALZMAN

In response to the federal First Amendment lawsuit filed last month by PLF client Michael Cefali, the City of San Juan Capistrano is moving to abolish its law forbidding the display of for-sale signs in cars parked on public streets. The city has ended enforcement of the ordinance and, on October 4, San Juan Capistrano’s city council voted to unanimously repeal the advertising ban. If the council affirms the repeal at a second reading of the ordinance on October 18, the law will be permanently off the books.

PLF brought the lawsuit to make the point that government the First Amendment protects every individuals’ right to truthfully communicate with the public–even if that communication is advertising the commercial message that one’s car is for sale. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that consumers have “an interest in the free flow of information” that “may be as keen, if not keener by far, than [their] interest in the day’s most urgent political debate.” (Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., (1976) 425 U.S. 748, 763.) More recently, the Supreme Court has said that government may not discriminate between signs based on their content (e.g., political signs vs. commercial signs) without a compelling reason. Yet that is exactly what San Juan Capistrano’s ordinance did: communicating the truthful message that one’s car is for sale by displaying a sign is illegal, but nearly any other message displaying an identical sign on one’s car escaped punishment.

If the city completes the full repeal of the unconstitutional ordinance and refunds Mr. Cefali the fine he paid for violating it, PLF will withdraw the lawsuit. The case will have achieved all that was intended: ending the city’s unconstitutional censorship of for-sale signs and reestablishing the free speech rights of San Juan Capistrano residents. By doing the right thing and acting to repeal the law quickly, the City has also avoided a more substantial attorney fee award that would likely have been due to PLF had the case been litigated all the way to final judgment.

The repeal is a win not only for Cefali, his neighbors in San Juan Capistrano, and free speech, but for the students who worked on the case at the PLF-sponsored Liberty Clinic program at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law. As we publicize the victory we anticipate the lawsuit will send a message to the many other cities across the county that continue enforce unconstitutional sign bans: repeal them now or risk being served with a similar expensive lawsuit.