A New Jersey town’s total ban on highway billboards, without regard to advertising content, does not violate First Amendment free-speech guarantees, a federal appeals court says.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler’s finding that the ordinance was a reasonable means of achieving the town’s substantial interests in traffic safety and "maintaining [its] natural beauty."
Monday’s precedential ruling, in Interstate Outdoor Advertising v. Mount Laurel, 11-3837, defeats a challenge to an ordinance enacted in 2008 after an outdoor sign company applied to build nine billboards along a segment of I-295 in Mount Laurel that runs closely parallel to the New Jersey Turnpike.
In response to the company’s suit, the town produced a report by its traffic engineer citing studies that showed reducing billboards along highways improved safety.
Interstate Outdoor Advertising argued that those studies had been disputed by others and that the incidence of traffic accidents is higher on highways because there is more traffic.
Judges Theodore McKee, Kent Jordan and Thomas Vanaskie followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, in Metromedia v. San Diego, 453 U.S. 490 (1981), that upheld a municipality’s power to regulate billboard placement for reasons related to their appearance and to traffic safety.
"In the context of billboards, the Supreme Court has deferred to the collective judgment of both legislatures and lower courts, and highlighted the importance of considering the plainly unattractive nature of billboards when evaluating whether a billboard ban directly advances a local government’s interests in traffic safety and aesthetics," McKee wrote for the panel.
He quoted the Metromedia court’s finding that "if the city has a sufficient basis for believing that billboards are traffic hazards and are unattractive, then obviously the most direct and perhaps the only effective approach to solving the problems they create is to prohibit them."
The company argued that Mount Laurel’s aesthetic desires should not be given as much weight, since the billboards were to be erected in an industrial section of the town. It also said the town should have conducted site-specific studies of the proposed locations prior to enacting the ordinance.
The Third Circuit disagreed, saying the industrial nature of that section of the highway did not mitigate the town’s concerns and there is no constitutional requirement to conduct site-specific studies.
"Against this background, we have no trouble concluding that Interstate’s challenge to the validity of Mount Laurel’s studies falls short of creating a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Mount Laurel’s legislative judgments were ‘facially unreasonable’ or ‘palpably false,’" McKee said, citing Metromedia.
The court suggested other avenues to reach customers: on-premises signs, Internet advertising, direct mail, radio, newspapers, television, circulars, flyers, commercial vehicle signs and signs on public transportation.
Interstate Outdoor argued that those alternatives would not allow it to reach the broad audience of drivers traveling on the highway. But McKee said "the mere fact that Interstate will not be able to reach the distinct audience of travelers on the particular section of I-295 that it desires to target does not mean that adequate alternative means of communication do not exist."
The town’s lawyer, Christopher Norman of Raymond, Coleman, Heinold & Norman in Moorestown, says Mount Laurel believed its ordinance would withstand a constitutional challenge because it was a total ban and was content-neutral.
"Mount Laurel was one of the first towns to enact a total ban," says the attorney for the town’s zoning board, Stratford solo Anthony Costa.
Interstate Outdoor’s attorney, Louis D’Arminio, of Cliffside Park’s Price, Meese, Shulman & D’Arminio, did not return a reporter’s call.
Michael Booth is a reporter for the New Jersey Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.