IJ Fights to Unleash Free Speech

John Kramer
John Kramer · December 1, 2010

Arlington, Va.—Why are American business owners so frustrated with the government?

Look no further than a lawsuit filed today in Arlington, Va. Entrepreneur Kim Houghton has filed a First Amendment suit against local bureaucrats who want to turn a playful mural Kim had painted on the back wall of “Wag More Dogs,” her canine boarding and grooming facility, into a government-issued sign.

The problem with Kim’s mural from Arlington County’s perspective?

The mural of cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints is an illegal “sign” in the opinion of a county official because its message has “a relationship” to the goods and services that the business provides. If the mural had dragons rather than dogs, Arlington County wouldn’t have a problem with it. But because it features dogs and bones—and Kim’s business deals with dogs—Arlington County considers the mural to be a sign, which is government-regulated.

Arlington zoning official Melinda Artman has given Kim three alternatives: 1) paint over the offending dogs and bones at Kim’s own expense, 2) turn the private mural into a government sign by adding the words “Welcome to Shirlington Park’s Community Canine Area” in four-foot-high letters, or 3) have her business shut down and face steep fines.

But Kim has decided to create a fourth alternative for herself: Represented by the Arlington-based Institute for Justice—a national public interest law firm with a long history of successfully defending the rights of government-menaced entrepreneurs—she has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to defend her rights and the rights of other small business owners.

For a brief video on this legal battle, visit: www.ij.org/DogMuralVideo.

“The First Amendment doesn’t let the government play art critic, yet that is what’s going on in Arlington,” said Institute for Justice attorney Robert Frommer. “The Institute for Justice is fighting on behalf of Kim and other entrepreneurs like her nationwide—to free them from the arbitrary and abusive use of government power that stifles small businesses. No one should have to choose between their right to speak and their right to earn an honest living.”

Long a fan of the dog park that is located right behind her business, Kim commissioned an outdoor mural of cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints in order to give something back to the community. But a few months later, Arlington officials blocked Kim’s building permit and told her that she could not open unless she painted over the mural or covered it with a blue tarp, which she has done. As part of its lawsuit, the Institute for Justice has also asked for a preliminary injunction against Arlington County that would allow Kim to display the mural while her legal bout wages on.

“Arlington County is trying to take my art and turn it into their sign,” Kim said. “The county said, for the mural to not be considered a sign, it may depict anything I like except something to do with dogs, bones, paw prints, pets or people walking their dogs. In other words, the mural cannot show anything that has any relationship with my business. If it does, then it becomes a sign. This is a violation of my freedom of speech and I intend to fight this with everything I’ve got.”

“Kim is waging a fight to vindicate not only her own right to free expression, but also the rights of other small businesses who must continually face seemingly all-powerful government regulators who arbitrarily and abusively wield the authority,” said Bob McNamara, an IJ staff attorney. “This case seeks to strengthen and expand on a very simple and 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.”

The Institute for Justice recently released a series of reports in which it documents the myriad restrictions and regulations that eight different U.S. cities impose upon would-be entrepreneurs. For example, IJ found that in Los Angeles, used-book store owners must get a police permit and record personal information about everyone who brings in books for trade, along with the titles of the books and the seller’s fingerprint. And taxicab owners in Newark and interior designers in Miami have erected government-enforced cartels that block new competition. The Institute for Justice’s city studies examine regulations imposed on a wide range of occupations in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Newark, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. For an entertaining video on these studies, visit: www.ij.org/CityStudiesVideo.

And what happens if these kinds of government restrictions are removed? As the Institute for Justice documented in another series of reports titled, “The Power of One Entrepreneur,” entrepreneurs who are freed are able to create jobs not only for themselves, but for dozens of others, too. And the freed-up entrepreneurs often become philanthropists within their communities, donating time, talent and treasure to those in need in their communities. The Power of One Entrepreneur studies are available at: www.ij.org/PowerOfOne.

The Institute for Justice is online at Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.