Hearing to Unleash Free Speech

John Kramer
John Kramer · January 24, 2011

Arlington, Va.—Every dog must have its day, and, in this case, so did a dog mural that has become the center of an important First Amendment fight in Arlington, Va.

On Friday, January 21, 2011, the Institute for Justice appeared in federal court in Alexandria to defend the constitutional rights of a local small business. Kim Houghton, owner of Wag More Dogs canine boarding and grooming facility, wanted to display some fun and whimsical art of dogs, paw prints and bones on the back wall of her business. Kim spent $4,000 to commission an outdoor mural—which contains no words at all, not even the name of her business—that is meant as a goodwill gesture to the community. For three months the patrons of an adjoining dog park told Kim how much they loved the mural.

Arlington County officials, though, told Kim that her mural was an illegal “sign” because they believe its message has a “relationship” with Kim’s business. In other words, an identical mural that depicted dragons would be perfectly fine. Likewise, if an auto body shop moved into Wag More Dogs’ space tomorrow, Arlington County would have no problem with the artwork. But because the mural shows dogs and bones, and Wag More Dogs is a dog business, it is illegal. Under the threat of losing her livelihood, Kim covered the mural with a blue tarp that has now been up for over five months.

Government officials cannot force citizens to choose between their right to speak and their right to earn an honest living. But, in the words of IJ attorney Robert Frommer, “Arlington County’s sign code gives its zoning administrator absolute discretion to treat entrepreneurs with absolute disdain.” The Institute for Justice is asking for a preliminary injunction that would let Kim tear down the tarp and share her art with the world. A victory will strike a blow for government-harassed entrepreneurs nationwide. And it will strengthen a very simple but important legal principle: Under the First Amendment, the right to speak is just that—a right—and not a privilege to be doled out by government officials.