Organization says case could take a year to be heard
By Steve Aust
Carl and Elizabeth Fears, the owners of Got Muscle, a small gym in Sacramento, CA, wanted to promote their business with an A-frame sign outside their front door, as well as several window signs on the building. Without a large advertising budget, they viewed their signs as the best way to promote their business to the community.
However, Sacramento city officials ordered the Fears to stop placing the sandwich-board sign outside their place of business. The city doesn’t allow sandwich-board signs outside to promote businesses, although it permits them for nonprofit-organization events, real-estate advertisements and political-candidate promotion. The city threatened a $900-a-day fine against the Fears for use of the sign. Given a family businesses’ tight finances, the Fears had no choice but to pull up the A-frame.
Erica Smith, an attorney for the Institute for Justice (IJ), an Arlington, VA-based firm that litigates cases related to commercial free speech, especially for small business, read about the Fears’ plight and took up their case. On August 13, IJ filed a lawsuit on the Fears’ behalf in Sacramento’s U.S. District Court to win the right for the Fears to display the sign outside their business and declare the Sacramento code unconstitutional.
“We’re going to fight this for our rights, for our business and other businesses throughout the nation,” Carl said. “We know best how to run our business, not the government.”
IJ also filed for a preliminary injunction that would allow the Fears to display their sign while the suit proceeds through the courts. Before the injunction ruling, city officials voluntarily agreed to not enforce the fine during the adjudication process, and pledged to amend Sacramento’s sign code. However, the case now resides in the 9th Judicial Circuit, which serves the West Coast and several interior Western states, and is known for a substantial backlog.
“We’re anticipating the Fears’ case may take a year to be heard,” Erica said.
IJ has taken up various sign-related cases in the past, such as Gilliland vs. City of Dallas – lead plaintiff April Gilliland operates a FastSigns, and sued the city to overturn its ban on window graphics, but dropped the suit in 2011 in the face of severe fine threats from the city. Also, they argued Central Radio Co. vs. City of Norfolk, where the city threatened to fine Central Radio for its use of an on-premise banner to object to the city’s attempt to use eminent domain to annex the property for an expansion of Old Dominion Univ. The court that initially heard he Central Radio case sided against IJ’s client, and it’s now being processed through the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, but Smith said there’s a possibility the case may be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
‘For so many small businesses, signage is their only avenue for advertising,” Erica said. “They don’t have the resources to do TV or radio spots like a big company. If you take away their rights to display a sign, there’s a good chance you’re taking away their livelihoods.”
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