United States: Supreme Court Reverses Ban On Electronic Billboards

Last Updated: September 23 2016
Article by Katharine A. Coffey, Craig M. Gianetti and Christopher J. Stracco

On September 15, the Supreme Court of New Jersey in E&J Equities v. Board of Adjustment of Franklin Township, 2016 N.J. LEXIS 890 (Sept. 15, 2016), reversed a decision of the Franklin Township Zoning Board of Adjustment and invalidated a township ordinance prohibiting the placement of electronic billboards along Interstate 287 in the township. The genesis of the case was in 2010 when the township adopted an ordinance regulating signs, including billboards, permitted in zoning districts proximate to an interstate highway. Digital billboards were expressly prohibited anywhere in the township. The township alleged that digital billboards were barred based on aesthetic and public safety concerns and, in particular, noted "there was no conclusive source or documentation that digital billboards were safe" nor were there "reasonable standards" for the regulation of digital billboards.

From 2008 to 2009, Franklin Township held public hearings concerning revisions and updates to its sign ordinance, including billboards. During that time, plaintiff filed an application with the Franklin Township Zoning Board of Adjustment for a conditional use variance to construct and install a digital billboard on property in a light industrial zone adjacent to Interstate 287. While the application was pending in March 2010, the Township adopted an ordinance prohibiting digital billboards. At that time, a number of studies showed that digital billboards have no statistically significant relationship with the occurrence of traffic accidents. A neighboring municipality had permitted the installation of a digital billboard along a portion of Interstate 287, under New Jersey Department of Transportation regulations (N.J.A.C. 16:41C-11.1) establishing minimum distance and other requirements. Under those regulations, based on the amount of frontage of Interstate 287 in the township, one digital billboard would be permitted. The NJDOT had issued a permit for the digital billboard subject to plaintiff's obtaining local zoning approval. Ultimately, the township zoning board voted 4 to 3 to approve the application, which equated to a denial because of the supermajority approval required for conditional use variances under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d)(3).

The plaintiff appealed the zoning board's decision to the Law Division in lieu of prerogative writs, and the Law Division concluded that the "Ordinance banned an entire medium of speech and burdened commercial speech." Applying an intermediate scrutiny standard, the Law Division determined the township had failed to establish that a total ban on digital or electronic billboards served a legitimate government interest, and that the ordinance was not narrowly drawn to advance that interest. In reversing the zoning board's decision, the Law Division found that "one digital billboard, by itself, was not likely to have any more of an impact on [T]ownship aesthetics than a static billboard." The court also noted that the township had failed to demonstrate that a complete ban on digital billboards advanced its stated interest in traffic safety given that the plaintiff's traffic safety studies found no correlation between the installation of digital billboards and any increase in traffic accidents. In finding that the township's ban on digital billboards was more expansive than necessary to advance the identified governmental interests, the Law Division declared the ordinance invalid.

The township appealed the Law Division's decision to the Appellate Division, which reversed the Law Division and reinstated the zoning board's decision and the ordinance, finding that it "is universally recognized that [the] government has a legitimate, even substantial, interest in preserving the aesthetics of its community and in promoting traffic safety," and that the township's stated reasons provided "a rational objective basis" for the Township's decision to refrain from digital billboards as a permitted use.

On certification, the Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and declared the ordinance unconstitutional. The court applied the "time, place, manner, intermediate scrutiny standard" for commercial speech. In so doing, it noted that "when a governmental entity restricts speech, it must do more than simply invoke government interests that have been recognized over time as substantial. In other words, there must be a modicum of support for the invoked government interest." With regard to aesthetics, the court found that the record provided no basis to discern how the three permitted static billboards were more aesthetically palatable than a single digital billboard. The court found a considerable amount of available literature would permit the township to adopt appropriate regulations for digital billboards, and it noted that the NJDOT had, in fact, promulgated regulations on the very issue. The court likewise dismissed the public safety debate because the "record is also bereft of any examination of the safety impact of the installation of three static billboards." It found that "the numbers standing alone do not lead inexorably to the conclusion that the installation of a single digital billboard in the Township will exacerbate the accident rate. ... In short, bare numbers do not carry the public safety debate." The court concluded that "in the fact of a record founded only on unsupported suppositions, fears, and concerns, we need not address whether the course taken by the governing body is reasonable under all of the circumstances."

In ultimately reversing the Appellate Division and holding that the ordinance was unconstitutional, the court stated that "a governing body seeking to restrict expression cannot simply invoke those interests with scant factual support informing its decision-making and expect to withstand a constitutional challenge. In the end, the record provides no explanation of the qualitative differences between three static billboards and a single digital billboard. The record also belies the assertion that no standards existed to address aesthetic and public safety concerns."

Most zoning and development applications for development do not involve free-speech issues. However, municipalities should take note that mere window dressing in support of protecting aesthetics and public safety does not pass muster as protecting "substantial" government interests absent at least a modicum of support for the invoked interest. Here, there was a virtual disconnect between the ordinance and common sense, because the township presented no empirical data suggesting that digital billboards cause more accidents than static billboards, or that they are less aesthetically pleasing than static billboards, particularly when located in the township's light manufacturing zone and adjacent to a major interstate highway.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Katharine A. Coffey
Christopher J. Stracco
In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions