Court Ignores Constitution in Sign Skirmish Lawsuit, Small Business Owner Will Appeal
Arlington, Va.—Today, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted Arlington County’s motion to dismiss in Wag More Dogs’ challenge to the Arlington County, Va., sign law. Wag More Dogs and its owner, Kim Houghton, brought suit after Arlington County forced the business to cover up a mural of happy cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints that it had painted on an exterior wall that abuts a local dog park. The reason, according to Arlington County’s zoning administrator, was because the mural had a “relationship” with Kim’s business. In its complaint, Wag More Dogs argued that this type of inquiry by government officials into who is speaking and what it is they are saying violates the First Amendment.
In its opinion, the District Court held that Arlington’s sign law was constitutional because it was not motivated by antipathy to any particular message and instead merely regulated where some pieces of art may appear. In her opinion, Judge Leonie Brinkema concluded that the mural was advertising that “plainly violates the County’s valid, content-neutral restriction on the size of business signs in ‘M’ industrial districts.” Because the court granted the County’s motion to dismiss, it denied Wag More Dogs’ request for a preliminary injunction as moot.
“Arlington County’s sign law unconstitutionally allows government officials to play art critic,” said Robert Frommer, IJstaff attorney and lead counsel on the matter.“Today’s opinion again shows how important it is to have an engaged judiciary that will uphold Americans’ constitutional rights by closely scrutinizing abuses of government power.”
Houghton said, “The court just didn’t get it and that is why we’re going to appeal. Free speech is too important a right for the county government and this court to ignore. I’m shocked and disappointed. And I’m saddened for the park users who want to see the mural. I shouldn’t have to cover this mural with a tarp that makes it look like my business is closed. What’s really being covered over here are my constitutional rights and the rights of other small business owners to freely express themselves. That’s what this case is all about and we’ll fight on until we win.”
Frommer said, “The district court’s dismissal today, although unfortunate, is not the end. We will press on in the appellate court and continue to fight against laws government officials’ absolute discretion to treat entrepreneurs like Kim with absolute disdain.”
For a brief video on this legal battle, visit: www.ij.org/DogMuralVideo