New Billboards May Be Banned; Old Ones Can Stay

Though this billboard sings the city's praises, the city could ban billboards, without infringing on free speech, a court has decided.

Towns may ban billboards for aesthetic or safety reasons, a Third Circuit Court has decided.  But the existing ones may stay, if they have already been approved.

The ruling, issued this week, could slow down the growth of new electronic signs along the highway.   

The court dismissed an appeal filed by an advertiser who argued that a ban would infringe on free speech. 

Interstate Outdoor Advertising wanted to erect four billboards along Interstate 295 in Mount Laurel, but was denied permission by the zoning board.  The company said the Burlington County township's complete ban on billboards was unconstitutional.

Chris Norman, Mount Laurel's special counsel, said township officials adopted the ban after determining billboards are unsightly and a hazard to drivers.  Currently, there are only two billboards in the township - one that advertises the Iron Hill Brewery off Routes 38 and 73, and another one on a county road. Those billboards, he said, predated the town's 1988 sign ordinance.     

The Third Circuit Court agreed that the ban "clearly limits Interstate's commercial speech."  But the court said the First Amendment was trumped in this case by local governments' authority to regulate billboards. 

Interstate's lawyer says he plans to meet with his clients to discuss whether to file an appeal.