Sacramento Signs

Fears vs. City of Sacramento
Free speech lawsuit filed by two entrepreneurs and the Institute for Justice challenges Sacramento’s sign ban.

. IJ clients Carl and Elizabeth Fears
Watch a brief video clip on this lawsuit


Businesses need to advertise to survive. For small businesses, signs are their most effective and least expensive option. But the City of Sacramento banned businesses from using sandwich boards, banners, and other portable signs and enforced its ban against the owners of a small independent gym, Carl and Elizabeth Fears. Without their sandwich board, the Fears lost countless customers. So the Fears fought back to protect their gym and the First Amendment right of every business to communicate with the public—and won.

For years, husband and wife Carl and Elizabeth relied on a sandwich board outside their gym, Got Muscle Health Club, to bring in clients. The gym is located at a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” building on a busy street; many would not even know the gym is there without the sign. The city threatened to prosecute the Fears’ sign with fines so severe, they would destroy their business. Although Got Muscle cannot survive without advertising, it had no choice but to remove the sign.

The city’s arbitrary restriction did not even apply to all messages. For instance, the Fears could legally display the same sign, in the same location, if it advertised real estate or a non-profit group’s event.

Sign codes like Sacramento’s threaten small businesses across the country. Local officials severely restrict signs, often in the name of “traffic safety” or “aesthetics,” with no proof that signs negatively affect either. Like in Sacramento, the side codes are often riddled with exemptions, undercutting officials’ claims that these restrictions are necessary.

This is not just bad public policy, it is unconstitutional. Under the First Amendment, the government cannot arbitrarily restrict speech, nor can it pick and choose what messages it likes best.

That’s why Carl and Elizabeth joined the Institute for Justice in filing a free-speech lawsuit against the city in federal court on Tuesday, August 13, 2013. Sacramento immediately backed down. Two weeks after the lawsuit was filed, the City agreed not to enforce the challenged provisions of the sign code against the Fears or anyone else in the City. In November 2013, the City amended its sign code to allow businesses to have sandwich board signs, banners, flags, and other temporary signs for the first time in decades. The Fears are thrilled to once again have their sign and also to have helped other businesses throughout the City.

Essential Background

Images and Media

Background: Sacramento Sign Police Target Small Business: Gym Tells City It Needs To Get With The Program (August 13, 2013)

Client Photo

Case Video

Latest Release: Victory for Sacramento Small Business In Free Speech Sign Fight (November 8, 2013)

Legal Briefs and Decisions

Complaint (PDF)

Launch Release: Sacramento Sign Police vs. the First Amendment (August 13, 2013)

Memo in support of preliminary injunction (PDF)



Case Timeline

 Filed Complaint: 

August 13, 2013

 Court Filed:

United States District Court for the Eastern District of California 


None Available

 Current Court:

United States District Court for the Eastern District of California


Case concluded

 Next Key Date:


Additional Releases

Maps, Charts and Facts


none available

Op-eds, News Articles and Links

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Institute for Justice
901 N. Glebe Road, Suite 900
Arlington, VA 22203
Tel 703.682.9320, Fax 703.682.9321
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