Arlington Virginia’s Sign Ordinance is for the Dogs

February 1, 2011

America’s road to economic recovery won’t begin in Washington, D.C. It will start in the homes and offices of entrepreneurs who risk it all to bring an idea to life. And their success is our success: The goods and services that these innovators offer and the jobs they create benefit us all. You would think that local governments would try to make starting one of these businesses as easy as possible, but you would be wrong. In Arlington County, Va., it has gotten so bad that entrepreneurs must choose between their right to speak and their right to earn an honest living.

For more than 20 years, Kim Houghton sold advertising at The Washington Post. But Kim wanted more: She sought a new direction that would let her work on something she felt passionate about. After looking at her life, Kim realized that she loved spending time with her three dogs. And so Kim decided to open Wag More Dogs, a high-end canine daycare, grooming and boarding business.

Kim rented a building next to an area dog park and began to get Wag More Dogs up and running. In order to give back to the park she had gone to for years and engender some good will for Wag More Dogs, Kim commissioned a 16-by-60 foot piece of art on the side of the building she leases that depicts happy cartoon dogs, bones, and paw prints. For three months the painting sat without issue, with dog park patrons telling Kim how much they liked it compared to the ugly cinder block walls that dominated the park.

Then one day, Arlington officials blocked Kim’s building permit and told her that Wag More Dogs could not open until she painted over her happy cartoon dogs. The problem—in the eyes of Arlington officials—was that Kim’s artwork had “a relationship” with her business. In other words, if Wag More Dogs’ painting had depicted kittens or ponies, that would have been fine. And if an auto shop had painted a mural of cartoon dogs, that would have been fine as well. But because Wag More Dogs is a dog business, Arlington County forced Kim to put up an ugly blue tarp that has covered her innocuous painting for over four months.

The First Amendment does not let the government play art critic. But Arlington’s law gives government bureaucrats absolute discretion to treat entrepreneurs with absolute disdain. That is why the Institute for Justice stepped up. In December, we filed a federal lawsuit contending that Arlington’s sign ordinance is unconstitutional because it is hopelessly vague and because it imposes special burdens on some paintings based on who painted them and what they depict. When we prevail, we will have done more than just help Kim tear down a tarp. We will have advanced the cause of economic liberty and vindicated a simple but incredibly important legal principle: that under the First Amendment the right to speak is just that­—a right—not a privilege for government officials to dole out as they please.

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