If the government can dictate what you can put in your own window, there's no limit to what it can do. The Institute for Justice was forced last week to end its constitutional challenge to a Dallas city ordinance that prohibited small businesses from displaying large window signs advertising specials or even specifying the store's hours of operation. To prevent the case from going to trial, Dallas bureaucrats threatened a mom-and-pop vacuum store, travel agency, uniform store and dry cleaner each with $300,000 in fines.
The ordinance specifies that no sign may appear in the upper two-thirds portion of any window or glass door. In the space that remains, signage may not take up more than 15 percent of the available window space. The ordinance carefully carves out an exemption for artistic and political speech. So a gigantic "Vote Obama" sign is acceptable, but one that states "20 percent off on Wednesdays" is not. "To claim that the citizens of Dallas were harmed to the tune of $300,000 per business is just ludicrous," Institute for Justice attorney Matt Miller told The Washington Times.
Typical big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy have plenty of money to advertise specials and mail out flyers that inform customers about upcoming sales. For the little guy, a notice in the window is often the only cost-effective way to entice passersby to try out their products or services. That's why the small shops in the case only asked for $1 in damages. Their only goal was overturning an ordinance they believe violates the First Amendment. Rather than allowing the case to go to a jury, the city unleashed code-enforcement officers who levied $1,000 in "nuisance" fines for each of the 300 days the businesses were in violation of the ordinance during the litigation.
It's hard to imagine who is harmed or offended by a large "open" or "sale" sign, but the city actually asserted the sign ordinance "promotes safety by preventing signs from obstructing firefighting or police surveillance or creating traffic hazards." That absurd claim was sufficient for a federal judge to refuse to issue a preliminary injunction while the case was pending. "It's surreal to have a conversation about this," Mr. Miller said. "The last thing this city needs to be doing is harassing small businesses. They have been here for 10, 20, 30 years. They're good businesses, they're good public citizens."
The cumulative effect of countless - and pointless - petty rules imposed by busybodies at the federal and state level on down to cities and towns takes a massive toll on the people who are trying to fulfill the American Dream. While the 7.7 percent unemployment rate in Dallas is below the national average, it ought to be much lower. It makes no sense to maintain a regulation whose sole effect is to cut off business opportunities for the types of firms most vulnerable in a weak economy. It makes even less sense to use vindictive, mob-style tactics to gain advantage in a constitutional disagreement.
Instead of wasting time looking for new ways to micromanage the use of private property, Dallas ought to look for ways to make the city a more welcoming place for entrepreneurs to come and set up shop. Repealing this ordinance would be a sign of progress.
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By Andrew P. Napolitano
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