In one of his best-known routines, the late comedian George Carlin famously questioned why the day's temperatures are recorded at the local airport - when nobody actually lives there.

This partially explains the Phoenix City Council's 5-4 vote last week for an ordinance that allows electronic billboards along city streets and freeways, but with limits on how many may be placed in proximity to each other.

This was a not-very-successful attempt to appease those who don't want them near their homes.

Ostensibly, that might mean they'd be fine at the airport.

Ask people whether they like electronic, or "video" billboards, and they will probably tell you no, even though many have photos of themselves taken while visiting the Las Vegas Strip or Times Square.

There they'd be, mugging for the camera and waving, with huge illuminated names of various casinos, entertainers, sodas and 3-D flat-screen TVs flashing behind them.

"Hey, we don't live here," you can almost see forming on their lips.

But such questions are often interpreted by people answering them in terms of whether they would have such a sign in close proximity or far away.

Like a lot of public things people put up with, their level of tolerance rises when the items in question are over there, someplace else, not in their faces.

Much rarer is the understanding that the question is about these signs generally, as in whether they should be allowed in the abstract, but with specific rules about how they convey the message (readers of this column will recall its recounting of the legal terms, "time, place and manner" as reasonable restrictions on free speech).

Like campaign signs - another form of communication large majorities of people say they dislike, but studies keep showing are quite effective at getting their message into their heads - billboards are great things for politicians to rail against in the aggregate with reasonable assurance of significant voter support (yes, even if they used signs in their own election campaigns).

The arguments against billboards include that they are distracting to drivers and are a blight on Arizona's scenic beauty.

Certainly a large electronic image of Charlize Theron in an evening gown selling perfume or a shirtless Hugh Jackman promoting his next movie would test the focus on the road of many motorists.

But are these any more distracting than people in swimsuits waving signs at busy intersections encouraging you to have your car washed?

Or those dressed in costumes and carrying signs on sidewalks seeking your tax preparation or furniture-buying business?

Both of those activities are quite legal, according to a state law passed in 2008.

As for scenic beauty, not all of Arizona is scenic. Billboard firms would be doing the industrial districts along Interstates 10 and 17 a favor, for example, if their signs were larger and blocked more of them from the view of passing drivers.

Which would you rather look at: Theron/Jackman, or, factories and warehouses?

And yet an Arizona Court of Appeals' ruling last month in a case involving groups opposed to the new Phoenix ordinance might well prevent the new law's allowing electronic billboards along freeways.

Phoenix has dozens of such billboards. There are a fair number of them along freeways in the East Valley as well, notably along Loop 202 along the frontage of Tempe Marketplace.

But the court ruled Nov. 17 that such signs along freeways violate the 41-year-old Arizona Highway Beautification Act's ban on signs along state and federal highways that utilize "intermittent" lighting.

The judges found the frequent change in electronic billboards' messages to be intermittent lighting according to the law, even though they acknowledged that in 1970 the kind of technology they use didn't exist.

"Because the combination of LEDs used to display each brightly lit image on the billboard changes every eight seconds," the court wrote, "the billboard's lighting necessarily is intermittent under the plain meaning of the statute."

Regardless of whether the appeals court's ban of such signs along freeways remains intact, controversy will continue regarding their presence along surface streets.

Meanwhile, an initiative petition drive is under way to negate the new Phoenix ordinance by putting before voters a ban on all new billboards and turning existing ones into the electronic kind.

To recall Carlin's joke, while we might not care about the temperature at the airport, people at the airport do.

Yet the initiative being attempted in Phoenix isn't about setting time, place and manner rules other than to say no time, nowhere and no how.

Simple solutions often are the stuff of ballot questions. Since the results of such elections often are neither simple nor solutions, electronic billboards are likely to end up back before the courts.

Perhaps members of the Arizona Legislature, which twice in the last decade failed to amend the Arizona Highway Beautification Act, might finally realize that 1970 was a long time ago.

Reasonable updates to this law are not only advisable, but necessary.

And you don't need flashing lights or Charlize Theron to tell you that.

• Contact columnist Mark J. Scarp at

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