Banning “For Sale” Signs: Latest Sign of a Growing Nanny State

John Kramer
John Kramer · October 10, 2006

Arlington, Va—In July 2003, Glendale, Ohio, threatened Chris Pagan with a hefty fine and even jail time because he put a “for sale” sign in the window of his car. Glendale bans the words “for sale” from parked cars because it thinks people will walk into traffic and get run over while looking at them.

Thus far, the courts have ruled that Glendale can censor Chris’ “for sale” sign on a whim because the U.S. Supreme Court singles out what it calls “commercial speech” for only limited First Amendment protection. The District Court and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considered it “self-evident” that Glendale has the authority to censor certain words because they deal with commerce rather than politics. Neither court even remarked on the peculiarity of Glendale threatening to jail Chris for 30 days simply because a sign in his car read “for sale” instead of, for example, “Support Our Troops” or “Go Buckeyes.”

Jeff Rowes, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents Pagan, said, “It is chilling that it took ordinary citizen Chris Pagan—rather than the Glendale legislators who wrote the ordinance, or the police enforcing it, or the Glendale attorney, or the judges on the District Court and Court of Appeals—to consider it wrong for Glendale to censor a sign because of what was written on it. Everyone took it for granted that, as long as speech is commercial, government can ban it on what amounts to a whim without any evidence it is harmful. The Institute for Justice is out to change that.”

The Institute for Justice argues that all speech—including so-called commercial speech—is vital to a free society.

“Glendale’s actions represent yet another example of how the government is making decisions for individuals that we are best able to make for ourselves,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice. “What makes this case so important is that if Glendale gets away with banning harmless for sale signs, it won’t be long before petty censorship is everywhere.”

On June 2, 2006, the Institute for Justice took up Chris Pagan’s cause and asked all 14 judges of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the decision of the three-judge panel. On September 6, 2006, the entire 6th Circuit agreed to rehear the case and withdrew the earlier appellate decision. On October 6, 2006, the Institute for Justice will submit a new brief on Chris Pagan’s behalf and will argue the case before the full court later this term.

For the First Amendment to mean anything, it must mean that government may not censor ordinary speech, even if that speech is “commercial.” Chris Pagan stood up for his rights and those of everyone else when he challenged Glendale’s power to ban his sign because of what it said.

Rowes concluded, “A victory for Chris would be a victory for all those who cherish the freedom of speech. We need to take the words of the First Amendment seriously and get away from the court-created notion that there is a difference between commercial speech and all other speech.”