November 9th, 2007

Court: Cities Can Ban Electronic Signs

Associated Press

New Hampshire’s Supreme Court says cities and towns can ban electronic billboards in the name of safety and aesthetics.

Regulating the signs does not unnecessarily infringe on First Amendment rights to free speech, the court noted yesterday in overturning a lower court’s decision.

The case was brought by Carlson’s Chrysler, which applied for a permit in 2005 for an electronically changeable sign at its Concord dealership. At the time, a city zoning ordinance banned electronic moving signs except for signs that showed the time, date and temperature. The city has since banned electronic time, date and temperature signs, as well.

When the city’s zoning board of adjustment denied the permit, the dealer appealed to Superior Court, saying its right to free commercial speech was being infringed.

That court agreed with the dealership, acknowledging that municipalities have the right to restrict commercial speech for aesthetic or safety reasons but saying that Concord presented no evidence that banning the signs would achieve those goals. It said the city could have achieved its safety and aesthetic goals with a less restrictive ordinance.

But the high court, in a decision written by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, cited a California court’s decision that said—regardless of the lack of data presented on the subject—common sense suggests that “billboards are intended to, and undoubtedly do, divert a driver’s attention from the roadway.”

Broderick disagreed with the Superior Court’s ruling that Concord’s ordinance was broader than necessary.

“The most effective way to eliminate the problems raised by electronic signs containing commercial advertising is to prohibit them,” he wrote.

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