Victory for Sacramento Small Business In Free Speech Sign Fight

John Kramer
John Kramer · November 8, 2013

Arlington, Va.—Today, Carl and Elizabeth Fears and their business, Got Muscle Health Club, won an important victory in their free speech lawsuit against the city of Sacramento, which challenged the city’s harsh restrictions on business signs. The Fears sued the city in August after officials threatened to fine them hundreds of dollars a day for using a sandwich board to advertise outside their gym. In response to the lawsuit, 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 new amendments went into effect yesterday, November 7 and the Fears and the city settled their lawsuit today.

As is true for other small businesses that don’t have big advertising budgets, the Fears relied on a sandwich board (also known as an A-frame) and other signs outside their gym to bring in clients. From the road, the gym just looks like a generic office building, so the signs are necessary to tell people about Got Muscle’s existence. The Fears’ sandwich board 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 former sign code, their sandwich board and other signs were illegal. This past May, city officials threatened the Fears with fines up to $1,000 if they continued using their cost-effective advertising.

Before it was revised, the code tried to justify its restrictions on signs in the name of “traffic safety” and “aesthetics,” but there was no proof that the signs negatively affect either. In fact, the city’s sign bans did not apply evenly to all messages. Under the old code, the Fears could legally display the same A-frame sign, in the same location, if it instead advertised real estate, a nonprofit group’s event or a political candidate.

So the Fears fought back. “Signs are crucial for small businesses to succeed and we have a First Amendment right to use them,” said Elizabeth. Her husband Carl added, “We fought not just for us, but for all businesses in the city.”

After the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm, filed suit on behalf of the Fears, the city immediately reexamined its sign code and moved swiftly to address the concerns raised by the Fears’ suit. In August, the city agreed to not enforce the challenged sign bans against the Fears or any other business. On October 8, the city council amended its sign code to remove the bans and allow businesses to use A-frame signs, as well as a certain amount of temporary signs, banners and commercial flags.

“The city did the right thing,” said Erica Smith, lead attorney on the case for the Institute for Justice. “It is refreshing to see a municipal government take commercial speech rights seriously. Now all Sacramento businesses will be able to legally attract more customers, free from these arbitrary and harmful government-imposed sign restrictions.”

Smith said, “Cities across the country should follow Sacramento’s lead and bring their own sign codes into compliance with the First Amendment.”