IJ Delivers a One-Two Punch for Free Speech in Sacramento

February 1, 2014

Most of IJ’s victories come in court, but every once in a while, one of our lawsuits forces the government to take a hard look at what it was doing and think twice about keeping the law on the books. That’s exactly what happened in Sacramento, Calif., where local fitness entrepreneurs Carl and Elizabeth Fears sued the city in August over its sign code.

For the past four years, the Fears relied on a sandwich board (also known as an A-frame sign) and other signs outside their gym, Got Muscle Health Club, to bring in clients. From the road, the gym just looks like a generic office building, so the signs are vital for Got Muscle’s success. The Fears’ A-frame sign is particularly effective: When they put it out, people often walk into Got Muscle and comment that they had not known the gym was there. But under Sacramento’s old sign code, the Fears’ sandwich board and other signs were illegal. Last May, officials threatened the Fears with fines up to $1,000 if they continued using their sandwich board, even though Sacramento allowed other speakers with other messages, like real estate agents and politicians, to use the very same signs.

Sacramento’s discriminatory sign code was slowly killing the Fears’ business. With IJ’s help, the Fears filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the code as a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Sacramento then did something that is unfortunately rare among government agencies—it decided to re-examine the code and allow small businesses to advertise using signs. With the input of the Fears, the city reworked its code to permit small businesses like Got Muscle Health Club to advertise. The city amended its sign code to allow businesses to have A-frame signs, banners, flags and other temporary signs for the first time in decades. The end result was a win-win-win: The Fears got to reach potential customers; Sacramento kept a reinvigorated small business in its community; and the damage to the First Amendment was undone.

The Fears and the city have now settled, and small businesses in California’s capital city can let customers know about the goods and services available to them. In an economy where many businesses struggle to survive, the city of Sacramento decided to get out of the way of hard-working entrepreneurs. Let’s hope that cities all across America start doing the same. Bill Maurer is the executive director of the IJ Washington chapter.

Bill Maurer is the executive director of the IJ Washington chapter.

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