Entrepreneurs Sue City of Dallas To Overturn Ban on Window Signs

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · November 10, 2009

DALLAS—The Texas Chapter of the Institute for Justice today filed a federal suit against the city of Dallas, Texas, for violating the free speech rights of local businesses.

Under the new law enacted in 2008, businesses are prohibited from putting signs in the upper two-thirds of any window or glass door, and no more than 15 percent of any window or glass door may be covered by signs.  The only way to comply with the new ordinance is by putting tiny signs at people’s feet—which is not an effective way to advertise.  The law also bans signs that cover more than 25 percent of a building’s façade.

The law only targets commercial messages.  Businesses are free to put anything except a commercial message in their windows.  For example, a business could paint a giant Dallas Cowboys helmet on its window—but not advertise that it offers Cowboys merchandise for sale inside.  Businesses can paint their windows black or put coolers or other items in front of them.  In fact, businesses are not even required to have windows at all.  What they cannot do is put a commercial message in the upper two-thirds of a window or cover more than 15 percent of a window with one.

“You’ll find a sign ordinance in nearly every city in America, but what are new are restrictions on percentages of window space that can be used for signage,” warned Matt Miller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter (IJ-TX), which today filed suit on behalf of Dallas-area entrepreneurs.  “These laws have cropped up mostly in the past five years or so.  Texas alone has dozens of them and they are spreading like an invasive weed that’s choking the First Amendment freedoms of small businesses.   We expect that a victory in the Dallas sign ban case would go a long way to stopping this spread not only in Texas, but nationwide.”

April Gilliland, co-owner of a FASTSIGNS franchise on Central Expressway, has seen the negative effects of the law firsthand.  Gilliland said, “I’ve had to tell many business owners that I can’t put a sign in their window, or on their door, because it violates the new Dallas ordinance.  People have important information that they want to convey to their customers, and this ordinance stops them from doing that.”

Charlie Patel, owner of Lakeside Cleaners at Knox Avenue and Central Expressway, has likewise been harmed by this law.  Dallas made him take down a simple vinyl window sign that advertised “20% Off” dry cleaning.  The reason?  The sign was in the upper two-thirds of the window and covered more than 15 percent of the window.  With the sign gone, all Charlie could do was watch helplessly while customers drove up and then drove immediately away, assuming the special was no longer being offered.

The city’s censorship falls hardest on small businesses for whom retail signs are the most cost-effective way—and often the only way—to reach customers with news about products, services and specials.

Gilliland and Patel are joined by three other Dallas-area entrepreneurs who have been negatively affected by the new law.

Dena McDonald owns a tropical travel agency called Tiki Trips on McKinney Avenue.  McDonald’s signs are crucial to her ability to attract business.  The bright colors and tropical imagery immediately convey the essence of her business—trips to beautiful destinations.  Without them, Tiki Trips would lose the ability to inform passers-by about the services they offer.

Jaine London owns a uniform supply store on Plano Road called TK Scrubs.  Dallas cited London and made her remove signs from her windows that told customers that TK Scrubs offers nurses’ uniforms and supplies.  Without those signs, London’s business has suffered.

Jeff Youngblood, another FASTSIGNS franchise owner, has joined the litigation in order to stand up for free speech and to protect the rights of his customers to convey simple, truthful messages to people driving or walking past their businesses.

Documents obtained through open records requests by the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter demonstrate that Dallas has primarily targeted enforcement of this law in lower-income areas of town and the businesses that serve them.  Outside of a major sweep of Harry Hines Avenue, enforcement has been spotty.  In both Charlie Patel’s and Jaine London’s cases, entire shopping centers were targeted while businesses just down the street continue to violate the ordinance and were not cited.  Indeed, most businesses in Dallas violate the ordinance today.  It is difficult to find any business that does not have any signs in the upper two-thirds of a window, or signs that do not cover more than 15 percent of a window.  Façade signage frequently covers more than 25 percent of a given area.  Signs like these are an indicator of economic health and vibrancy.

The answer to the problem the city has created, however, is not to enforce this unconstitutional law on all businesses, but rather to do away with the restrictions and allow all businesses to reach out to their customers without the heavy hand of government getting in the way.

Miller said, “Cities wouldn’t dream of telling a newspaper how many pages of advertising they could carry, or telling a television station that they could only advertise during certain hours.  Yet they are perfectly happy to ban the basic window signs that small businesses rely on to attract customers.”

Miller concluded, “The First Amendment doesn’t draw a distinction between commercial speech, political speech and artistic speech.  Commercial speech is one of the most basic—and important—kinds of speech in our society.  It is the lifeline between small businesses and their customers.  Dallas has severed that lifeline with this oppressive law.  We are asking a federal court to declare the law unconstitutional.”

The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit public interest law firm that advances a rule of law under which individuals can control their destinies as free and responsible members of society.