Clear Channel sues Baltimore over billboard tax

The media company claims billboards should be protected as free speech under the First Amendment

Ever been driving down the highway in Baltimore and noticed Lady Gaga staring back at you? Chances are, that billboard is the work of media firm Clear Channel Outdoor. And now, Clear Channel is fighting to keep Lady Gaga staring under the protection of the First Amendment.

The Baltimore Sun says Clear Channel has filed suit in U.S. District Court against the city of Baltimore, claiming the city’s new billboard tax is unconstitutional and billboards should be protected as free speech. Baltimore imposed a tax starting last month on billboard advertisements within the city limits—$15 per square foot for electronic billboards and $5 per square foot for standard billboards.

Baltimore levied the tax as part of a plan to close the city’s $750 million budget shortfall. As part of the tax, city officials expect to take in $1 million annually from Clear Channel alone. The company owns roughly 95 percent of Baltimore’s billboard advertising.

Clear Channel doesn’t see those terms as fair. According to General Counsel Sara Lee Keller, this litigation “is not something we do lightly, or we use as a sword. Municipalities have been really pressed for revenue. There are many different ways to approach this issue. Assessing a fee against one payer is not the way to do it.”

City officials said they expected this type of legal challenge from Clear Channel. The company threatened litigation back in April if the measure passed, and Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rowlings-Blake denied Clear Channel’s offer of $1 million in free advertising for the city in lieu of the tax.

Baltimore isn’t the only city Clear Channel has fought over this type of tax. Clear Channel was part of a group of media providers that sued Philadelphia in 2005, and the company went after Los Angeles’ similar law in 2002. In both cases, the parties settled the suit out of court.

Read more about this story in The Baltimore Sun.

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