City of Redmond Wastes More Taxpayers’ Money By Appealing Unconstitutional Sign Ban

John Kramer
John Kramer · July 16, 2004

Seattle, WA—On July 13, 2004, the City of Redmond, Wash., appealed a federal trial court ruling that Redmond’s ban on certain portable signs is unconstitutional. The appeal asks the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Judge Marsha Pechman’s ruling, which concluded that Redmond’s sign ban violated the First Amendment and the Washington Constitution.

The case arose when entrepreneur Dennis Ballen had an employee stand near a busy intersection in Redmond wearing a sign that read “Fresh Bagels – Now Open.” The sign promoted Blazing Bagels, Ballen’s bagel store, which is tucked away off of Redmond Way and which relies heavily on signage to attract customers. But on June 18, 2003, a Code Compliance Officer from the City of Redmond hand-delivered a letter telling Ballen that such advertising for Blazing Bagels “needs to cease and desist immediately.” The letter told Ballen that, in Redmond, portable signs—including those held or worn by individuals, containing certain kinds of commercial information—are prohibited. However, Redmond permitted portable signs—including those held by individuals—so long as they advertised real estate or political candidates.

Dennis Ballen expressed disappointment in Redmond’s decision to appeal the decision. “How much time and money is the City going to expend in its efforts to keep me from telling people about bagels? Every day, customers ask me why the City is pursuing this when the ban is obviously unconstitutional. Apparently, the City must be rolling in dough and has nothing better to do with its money than try to keep me from advertising my store. Redmond’s appeal just makes the City’s hostility to small businesses even clearer.”

Bill Maurer, the executive director of IJ-WA, said, “Two federal judges have already found Redmond’s sign ban to be irrational and unconstitutional. We fully expect the Ninth Circuit to come to an identical decision.”

Jeanette Petersen, staff attorney for IJ-WA and the author of a forthcoming study on barriers to entrepreneurship in the Puget Sound area, said, “Dennis Ballen has already spent a year in litigation just so he could employ a person to hold a sign with the message ‘Fresh Bagels – Now Open.’ If Redmond cared about the health of the businesses that pay the City’s taxes and comprise so much of its economic base, the City would not require him to continue to fight for his most basic constitutional rights.”

Maurer concluded, “We will continue to fight for Dennis’ right to free speech as long as the City wants to pursue this. The City of Redmond apparently needs another reminder that the constitution applies to it.”

Represented for free by the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA), Ballen filed a lawsuit on July 22, 2003, charging that Redmond’s ban on portable signs violates his right to free speech and his right to earn an honest living in his chosen profession. In January 2004, Judge Thomas Zilly enjoined the enforcement of the Redmond ban pending trial, ruling that Redmond’s ordinance was likely unconstitutional. On June 15, 2004, Judge Pechman disposed of the case altogether by ruling that the ban was unconstitutional. Judge Pechman explained that Redmond had failed to produce evidence that the ban, with its numerous exceptions based on content, actually achieved Redmond’s purported goal of advancing traffic safety and aesthetics.