FRANKLIN (Somerset) — The state's top court ruled Thursday that this Somerset County municipality's ban on electronic billboards is unconstitutional because it violates federal and state free speech rights.

The township in 2010 banned electronic billboards on its stretch of Route 287 in an effort to preserve the suburban municipality's "bucolic" character. Officials also argued that electronic billboards were distracting and could contribute to traffic accidents.

Regular "static" billboards that didn't move, light up or emit smoke were permitted on certain industrial stretches of the highway.

A year before the ban, E&J Equities applied for a variance to erect an electronic billboard on one of the zones that permitted the static billboards.

The application fell one vote short of approval by the Planning Board after a vote was taken following the ban.

The company sued the township in Superior Court, where a trial judge ruled against the municipality. The judge said that an electronic billboard would likely have no more impact on traffic and aesthetics than a static billboard.

The municipality, however, won on appeal, but that decision was overturned this week by the Supreme Court.

While electronic billboards can still be regulated for safety reasons, the Supreme Court decision says municipalities cannot single out electronic billboards for prohibition.

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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.