The government wouldn’t dream of telling a television station that ads can only run on 15 percent of the screen, or telling a newspaper that ads must be relegated to the bottom third of each page. Yet many cities have no reservations about setting similarly arbitrary, ill-advised and ultimately unconstitutional restrictions on businesses that want to hang signs in their windows.
The IJ Texas Chapter recently filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Dallas challenging just such a law. Dallas has banned all window signs in the upper two-thirds of any window and prohibits signs from covering more than 15 percent of a window. That means businesses can only display signs that are too small and too low to attract a potential customer’s attention—hardly an effective way to tell people about the products and services offered inside.
This case challenges the notion that commercial speech is entitled to less protection than political or artistic speech. As Justice Clarence Thomas said in 44 Liquormart v. Rhode Island, “I do not see a philosophical or historical basis for asserting that ‘commercial’ speech is of ‘lower value’ than ‘noncommercial’ speech . . . . Nor do I believe that the only explanations that the Court has ever advanced for treating ‘commercial’ speech differently from other speech can justify restricting ‘commercial’ speech in order to keep information from legal purchasers so as to thwart what would otherwise be their choices in the marketplace.”
Window signs are incredibly important to small businesses. Newspaper, television and radio advertising are expensive and often ineffective ways to advertise the local products and services that small businesses tend to offer. Instead, window signs—most of which cost between only $25 and $200—allow small businesses to easily tell both regular and potential customers about products, services, sales and weekly specials.
Dallas claims the ban is necessary to improve community aesthetics and to allow police officers to see inside businesses. But deciding whether something is aesthetically pleasing should not be the government’s job. And Dallas has no evidence that simple window signs make a business more vulnerable to crime. In fact, the city does not require businesses to have windows in the first place.
Our clients are a diverse and lively group of small business owners. They include a dry cleaner, clothing store, travel agency, vacuum business and two Fastsigns franchisees who have seen the effect of the new law firsthand. Many of our clients have been issued warnings and citations by city enforcers to remove their signs or face fines of up to $2,000. Others want to keep the signs they have but feel they should not have to become scofflaws in order to do so. All of them are standing up for the First Amendment right of every business owner in Dallas to communicate truthful information in their windows.
Justice Thomas is right. IJ is fighting to vindicate the basic speech rights of small businesses because the First Amendment protects all speech—even when it is printed in large type and hung in a store window.
Matt Miller is the IJ Texas Chapter executive director.