Four years ago Carl and Elizabeth Fears started Got Muscle Health Club in Sacramento. Dedicated to making their gym thrive, the husband-and-wife team opens every morning at 5:30 a.m. and often works 16-hour days. But city officials do not share the same commitment to success. Sacramento makes it almost impossible for Got Muscle and other small businesses to advertise using signs.
Signs are often the most effective and inexpensive way for small businesses to communicate. And they are vital for Got Muscle. The gym’s windows are tinted, and the entrance is in the back of the building facing a parking lot. From the road, Got Muscle looks like an office building. So the Fears used window signs and an A-frame sandwich board in front of their building to bring in clients. The Fears’ A-frame sign was particularly effective, drawing in several new customers every day.
But in recent months, the city decided that this had to stop. The city banned A-frames, banners and other types of temporary advertising, and threatened the Fears with hundreds of dollars in fines every day if they used their A-frame. The Fears were forced to stop advertising, causing a dramatic decrease in their walk-in traffic.
The sign code does not apply evenly to everyone. Signs advertising real estate, events for non-profit groups, political campaigns, government flags, religious symbols and the emblems of historical organizations are either entirely exempt from the sign code’s severe provisions or have only minimal regulations. For instance, Got Muscle could put out an A-frame sign that says “Got Muscle: For Rent” but not one that says “Got Muscle: Join Now.” Adding to this inequity, the city admitted to ignoring countless illegal signs near Got Muscle.
Sacramento’s sign code is not only bad for business, it is unconstitutional. Under the First Amendment, the government cannot arbitrarily restrict entrepreneurs’ free-speech right to advertise, nor can it regulate speech according to its content. In fact, the Institute for Justice won a case against a similarly restrictive sign code in Redmond, Wa., in 2006.
Thankfully, Carl and Elizabeth are fighting back. In August, they teamed up with IJ to challenge Sacramento’s sign ban in federal court. The city immediately contacted IJ and said the city council will try to amend the sign code to bring it into compliance with the Constitution. If it does not, the Fears and IJ will not stop fighting until the courts strike the code down.
Erica Smith is an IJ attorney.