Washington City Rains on Yard Sales

Proponents of the age-old American tradition of yard or garage sales are under siege. Last month, Arlington, Texas residents came out to protest a city council proposal to impose broad new restrictions on yard sales. But city lawmakers in Aberdeen, Washington are moving forward with their efforts to severely limit the practice. On July 26, the Aberdeen City Council passed the first reading of an ordinance to reduce the limit on yard sales from 10 to a total of two per household per year, while maintaining discriminatory restrictions on signs advertising the sales. The bill was sent back to committee at its second reading on August 9.

If enacted, this new ordinance, Bill No. 17-09, would mean that people who want to have three yard sales within a year—whether because they need extra money to pay the bills or simply want a convenient means to meet more neighbors—or put a sign on a neighborhood telephone pole or other “public structure” could not do so without incurring fines from the city government.

Aberdeen’s restrictions on yard sale signs likely run afoul of free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution because the city discriminates heavily against different signs based on their content. There are different rules for “religious, political or other similar noncommercial” vs. residential signs vs. noncommercial holiday decorations and banners. City code also allows public agencies to approve portable signs on public structures—but Bill 17-09 would exclude yard sale signs from this option.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decisively ruled that this sort of content-based discrimination in sign laws is unconstitutional. But for the sake of giving the government more control over what private citizens can legally do with their own property, Aberdeen Mayor Eric Larson and city councilmembers like Tim Alstrom are willing to run roughshod over the constitutional rights of their own constituents.

As Highland, California resident Nancy Domin learned when violating that city’s yard sale restrictions, residents who violated the new ordinance inadvertently—because they were never informed of it—would still be on the hook for potentially ruinous fines.

According to the Statistic Brain Research Center, Americans average 165,000 yard sales every week, generating more than $4 million for people across the country. In the two weeks between the first and second readings of Aberdeen’s anti-yard sale ordinance, nearly 1.4 million people will have bought something from a yard sale in the United States. Harsher limits on sales and discriminatory restrictions on signs will make it harder for Aberdeen residents to benefit from this national tradition.

Unfortunately, Aberdeen officials are hardly alone in their efforts to restrict the constitutional rights of their constituents. The Institute for Justice (IJ) is currently defending a game store owner’s inflatable Super Mario in the suburbs of Jacksonville, Florida from unconstitutional local sign laws. IJ is also helping a South Florida couple fight against Miami Shores Village’s restrictions on front-yard vegetable gardens. Institute attorneys are also standing with a Texas mechanic against Dallas officials’ campaign to shut down the successful business he built on his own property.

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