By Matt Miller
IJ recently filed suit to end Dallas’ ban on nearly all commercial signs in storefront windows. As IJ’s federal lawsuit against the city of Dallas makes its way through the court system, we have been hard at work on the ground continuing our fight against an unconstitutional law that is silencing entrepreneurs and making it even harder for business to succeed in these already-difficult economic times.
Across Dallas, small business owners are hanging a sign in their windows that delivers a blunt message to the city: “Free Speech For Small Business: End the Dallas Sign Ban.”
A sign might seem like an odd way to protest a sign ban, but these protest signs help illustrate exactly what is wrong with Dallas’ new ordinance by showing how effectively windows can be used to deliver a message. In 2008, Dallas passed a law banning all commercial messages from the upper two-thirds of any window or glass door. It also banned signs that cover more than 15 percent of a window. The result: The only signs businesses can hang are tiny signs placed so low that nobody can see them.
Tellingly, the law only targets commercial speech. That is where the protest signs come in. Dallas lets small businesses put anything they want in their windows except speech about the products and services that the business offers. The protest signs are exempt political speech and are thus allowed under the law. But the First Amendment does not give commercial speech less protection than political speech. Neither should the city of Dallas.
Dallas has been aggressively enforcing the new law. Convenience stores (including every 7-Eleven in Dallas) now look eerily vacant, their windows devoid of signs. Dry cleaners (like our client Charlie Patel) are no longer able to effectively advertise weekly specials. Window signs are coming down across Dallas at the behest of city code enforcers. Businesses that refuse to comply face fines of up to $2,000. Dallas’ Mayor Pro Tem was not kidding when he told the local ABC News affiliate that the law represents a “drastic” change for the city.
That is why, on February 24, 2010, small businesses across Dallas began displaying the IJ-designed protest sign. In the days and weeks leading up to the protest, IJ attorneys and staff crisscrossed the city, visiting hundreds of businesses and handing out signs. The same day, we held a press conference in front of AAA Vacuum—the store of one of our clients—to announce the protest campaign. We also launched a Freedom Flix video on YouTube (www.ij.org/DallasSignBanVideo) demonstrating the absurdity of the new law.
These efforts paid off with major interest from local and national media and bloggers. From federal courts to the court of public opinion, IJ-TX will continue to apply pressure on the city, and Dallas small businesses will do their part by displaying signs of their resistance to this oppressive new law.
We are confident that the First Amendment will secure a victory for Dallas entrepreneurs. Whether that happens in the court of law or—through business owners’ exercise of their First Amendment protest rights—by applying pressure to local officials, this law should be abandoned and thrown into the scrap bin of bad ideas.
Matt Miller is the IJ Texas Chapter executive director.