Lynnwood, WA Sign Ordinance

Epoch Design v. City of Lynnwood
City of Lynnwood Sign Ordinance Stifles Subversive Signs About Futons and Free Speech

IJ client John de Raspe

The Futon Factory is a family-owned business that operates a futon store on 196th Street in Lynnwood. In order to inform potential customers of the high-quality and attractive furniture at their store, the owners of the Futon Factory – David Bolles, his wife Monica De Raspe Bolles, and John De Raspe – hired a sign-holder to stand with a sign on nearby 44th Avenue, which typically has more traffic than 196th Street. The sign holder waived to folks and stood on the street corner on weekends, when traffic was highest because of the commercial nature of the area. The sign he held contained commercial information on both its front and back.

After years of economic hardship in the state of Washington, one should reasonably expect that the City of Lynnwood would have been delighted to have a successful family-owned business in town. One would also think that Lynnwood would have done whatever it could to help such businesses thrive and attract customers. If you thought that, you would not know how government bureaucrats operate.

Rather than assist a small, family-owned business like the Futon Factory, the City of Lynnwood decided to start warning the store that its signs did not meet Lynnwood’s complex and exception-laden sign code. The owners of the Futon Factory are not the type of people who let warnings from bureaucrats interfere with their ability to exercise their fundamental constitutional rights, however. So David, Monica and John sent their sign holder out again – this time with a commercial message on the front and the statement “Futon Factory Believes In Free Speech” on the back. And that is when the city issued a citation to them.

Under Lynnwood’s scheme, portable off-premises signs were banned for small businesses such as Futon Factory, but allowed for other purposes, such as political campaigns and the sale or real estate. The only difference between the signs Lynnwood permitted and the signs it banned were the words on the signs.

In 2004, Futon Factory, represented by the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA), filed a federal civil rights action against the city, arguing that the city’s sign ban impermissibly discriminated based on the content of speech and therefore violated the First Amendment. The lawsuit sought to prevent the City from enforcing the restrictions on commercial speech and asked the court to declare the sign ban unconstitutional and unlawful. The lawsuit’s goal was to fulfill the unconditional guarantee of free speech contained in the Washington Constitution.

Futon Factory and IJ-WA achieved their goal on August 14, 2007, when the Snohomish County Superior Court formally ended the threat to Futon Factory’s First Amendment rights by accepting Lynnwood’s agreement to halt the sign ban. In an agreed consent judgment, the city acknowledged that, by “allow[ing] portable, off-premises signs that advertise the sale of real estate and household goods, while prohibiting those that advertise other goods and services,” the city had created a “discriminatory, content-based prohibition” that violated the free speech rights of small businesses like Futon Factory. In that light, the judgment held the sign ban unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement.

The victory was helped in large part by another IJ-WA case, Ballen v. City of Redmond. In September 2006, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a similar portable sign ban in Redmond, Wash., that threatened bagel shop owner Dennis Ballen.

Now, thanks to Futon Factory and Dennis Ballen, free speech rights are more secure for small businesses across Washington State.

Essential Background


Backgrounder: Advertising Ban Is Sign of Big Government; Washington's City of Lynnwood Bans Signs For Businesses But Not for Politicians

Client Photo - none available

Client Video - none available


Latest Release: Free Speech Prevails in Lynnwood; IJ Washington Chapter Scores Another Victory for Commercial Speech (August 17, 2007)

Legal Briefs and Decisions

none available

Launch Release: Advertising Ban Is Sign of Big Government (June 24, 2004)


Case Timeline

Filed Lawsuit: 


June 22, 2004

Court Filed:


Snohomish County Superior Court



January 21, 2005, judge denied the City's Motion for Summary Judgment & refused to dismiss the lawsuit

Current Court:





Discovery is ongoing

Next Key Date:



Additional Releases

Maps, Charts and Facts

Release: Judge Refuses to Dismiss Lawsuit In Free Speech Case (January 24, 2005)


none available

Op-eds, News Articles and Links

Article: IJ-WA Builds Victory on Victory: Liberating Speech in Lynnwood; Liberty & Law (October 2007)

Article: IJ’s Blazing First Amendment Victory; Liberty & Law (August 2004)

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