Richmond Court Argument:4th U.S. Circuit Hears Important Virginia Free Speech Case, Can Entrepreneur Display Mural of Dogs?

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 21, 2012

Arlington, Va.—An important free speech fight will take place Wednesday, March 21 in federal court in Richmond that could decide whether the government may use its power to harass, fine and even shut down a small business that dares to display art without the government’s permission.

Entrepreneur Kim Houghton, owner of Wag More Dogs canine boarding and grooming facility in Arlington, Va., wasn’t looking for a fight. All she wanted to do was build goodwill with dog owners by creating a fun and whimsical mural on the back wall of her business, which faces the Shirlington Dog Park. Kim spent $4,000 to commission an outdoor mural of cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints to be painted on the back wall of her business. As a long-time user of the park herself, Kim saw the mural as her gift to the community.

But now Arlington County officials are trying to turn Kim’s mural into their government-issued sign. Shortly after the mural was completed—which contains no words at all, not even the name of Kim’s business—Arlington blocked Kim’s building permit and gave her three alternatives: 1) cover 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. In the eyes of Arlington County, Kim’s mural was illegal because it had a “relationship” to her business. A mural depicting dragons would be perfectly fine, but because hers shows dogs and bones, it is illegal. Under the threat of losing her livelihood, Kim complied and covered the mural with a blue tarp.

Arlington County is trying to make Kim choose between her right to speak and her right to earn an honest living. And, just as bad, the county’s zoning administrator is playing art critic. Represented by the Institute for Justice, Kim’s case will be argued on Wednesday, March 21 before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. This lawsuit seeks to stop the county’s harassment and strike a blow for government-harassed entrepreneurs nationwide. It also seeks to 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.