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HOUGHTON: Arlington County scrooges need bigger hearts

All I want for Christmas is the First Amendment

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2011

Season's greetings! The days are getting shorter, the temperatures are falling, and the grayness of early winter is descending upon us. I have a colorful and whimsical gift I want to share with all of you but, unfortunately, Arlington County has forced me to keep it wrapped up. Hopefully, a federal court will soon change all of that.

I am a dog lover and always have been. So when I chose to go into business for myself, I knew I wanted to open a dog day care, boarding and grooming facility. I rented an old industrial space bordering the Shirlington Dog Park, where I have been taking my dogs for years. As I prepared to open Wag More Dogs, I wanted to do something to give back to the park's patrons. So in May 2010, I hired a local artist to paint over the bare cinder blocks on the back wall of my business with a mural of cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints.

People loved the artwork, and many dog owners thanked me for beautifying the park. Three months later, however, I received an email from the Arlington County zoning administrator. She told me I could not open my business until I painted over the mural. When I asked her what the problem was, she said that because my artwork depicted dogs and bones, it was illegal. In other words, a mural of flowers, dragons or ponies would have been fine, but because my business is dog-related, any dog-related images were forbidden. Rather than lose my life savings, which I invested in opening my small business, I agreed to cover the mural with a huge blue tarp.

That tarp has now been up for well over a year. It is ugly, no doubt, and it constantly causes people to ask me if my business is closed. But while some people have said I should give in to the county's demands and just paint over the mural at my own expense (or paint a message the county suggested on top of the image, thus making my artwork their sign), I'm fighting for something bigger than me, even bigger than Wag More Dogs. I'm fighting for freedom of speech - the right of all Americans to express themselves without being silenced by government bureaucrats who want to play art critic.

No one should have to choose between their right to speak and their right to earn an honest living. To protect those rights, I joined with the merry band of litigators from the Arlington-based Institute for Justice and brought a First Amendment lawsuit against the county last year in federal court. We argue that Arlington and other local governments may not censor pieces of art because of their subject matter. (Again, the county says that if I painted ponies on my mural, that wouldn't be a problem, but because I painted dogs and the like, that is forbidden.) Now we are taking that argument to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear my case some time early next year.

Christmas is a time for miracles. After all, Ebenezer Scrooge learned to be kind and the Grinch's heart grew three sizes. I hope this holiday season can cause Arlington County to experience a similar transformation. And if not, well, that's why we have a Constitution.

Kim Houghton owns Wag More Dogs.

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