Supreme Court won’t hear challenge to N.J. limits on adult business signs

Tuesday, June 29, 1999

The U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to hear a challenge to a New Jersey law limiting the number of signs adult businesses can display.

In 1995, the New Jersey Legislature passed a law providing that “no sexually oriented business shall display more than two exterior signs, consisting of one identification sign and one sign giving notice that the premises are off limits to minors.” The law also limited the size of the identification sign.

The Legislature said the law was designed to further two compelling state interests — traffic safety and the protection of minors.

Hamilton Amusement Center, Inc. and several other adult businesses challenged the law in state court under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the free-speech provision of the New Jersey Constitution.

In 1995, a trial judge ruled in favor of the adult businesses, finding that the state failed to establish the legitimacy of its asserted interests.

However, a state appeals court reversed that decision in 1997, finding that the law was constitutional. The appeals court noted that the speech affected only commercial speech, which is not afforded as much protection in First Amendment law as other types of noncommercial speech, such as political speech.

In 1998, the New Jersey Supreme Court also upheld the law. The state high court wrote that “the limitation of signs … directly advances the government’s interests in limiting negative secondary effects, such as neighborhood deterioration and concentration of crime.”

The adult businesses argued that the state’s interest in traffic safety was tainted because it singled out the signs of sexually oriented businesses. However, the court found that the Legislature “could reasonably conclude that the nature and content of the signs of sexually oriented businesses cause greater distraction to motorists than other commercial signs.”

Because the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Hamilton Amusement Center v. Verniero, the New Jersey Supreme Court decision stands.