Shirlington Dog Park Mural - Backgrounder
IJ Fights to Unleash Free Speech
Challenging Arlington, Virginia’s Unconstitutional Sign Ordinance
The Issue in a Nutshell:
No one should have to choose between their right to speak and their right to earn an honest living. And the First Amendment does not let government officials play art critic.
Kim Houghton is the owner of Wag More Dogs, a canine boarding and grooming facility in Arlington, Va. Long a fan of the dog park that is located right behind her business, Kim commissioned an outdoor mural of cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints in order to give something back to the community. But a few months later, Arlington officials blocked Kim’s building permit and told her that she could not open unless she painted over the mural or covered it with a blue tarp. Her crime was painting a piece of art that—in the eyes of Arlington officials—was “too related” to her business. In the eyes of the county regulator, a mural that depicted dragons would be perfectly fine. But because it shows dogs and bones, it’s illegal. Under the threat of losing her livelihood, Kim complied and covered the mural.
But now she is waging a fight to vindicate not only her own right to free expression, but also the rights of other small businesses who must continually face seemingly all-powerful government regulators who arbitrarily and abusively wield the authority.
Arlington County’s zoning ordinance unconstitutionally burdens certain speech based on its message. And the complete vagueness of the ordinance gives government officials unbridled discretion to decide what is art and what is a sign. That is why Kim has teamed up with the Institute for Justice to file a federal First Amendment challenge to Arlington’s zoning ordinance in court.
Kim’s lawsuit, filed on December 2, 2010, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, will vindicate her right to earn an honest living free from the unconstitutional conditions that Arlington is trying to impose. And it will strengthen and expand on a very simple and 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.
Location, location, location aren’t the only essentials for the success of a small business. Generating goodwill with potential customers is also key.
And yet, in Arlington, Va., entrepreneur Kim Houghton, the owner of Wag More Dogs, is being mercilessly harassed by a local bureaucracy for creating an attractive and playful mural of dogs at play on the back wall of her business—a wall that faces an area dog park.
The mural doesn’t say, “Open for business.” In fact, the mural doesn’t have any words at all . . . not even the name of Kim’s enterprise.
It is merely an artistic expression designed to please the dog owners who walk their dogs by Kim’s business—something better to look at than a bare cinderblock wall.
So what’s the problem? The mural of cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints is an illegal “sign” in the opinion of a county official because its message is “too close” to the goods and services that the business provides. If the mural had dragons rather than dogs, Arlington County wouldn’t have a problem with it. But because it features dogs and bones, and Kim’s business deals with dogs, that, for Arlington County, is too close and so they consider the mural to be a sign, which is government-regulated.
The zoning official has now given Kim three alternatives: 1) paint it over 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.
But Kim has decided to create a fourth alternative for herself: Represented by the Arlington-based Institute for Justice—a national public interest law firm with a long history of successfully defending the rights of government-menaced entrepreneurs—she is going to sue to defend her rights and the rights of other small business owners.
Faced with the threat of having her business shut down by the county, Kim has been forced to hide her artwork behind an ugly blue tarp, leaving many would-be customers thinking that her business is shut down. As part of her lawsuit, she is seeking the court’s permission to display the mural during the course of her litigation.
Entrepreneurship is the path to both freedom and economic growth. In this jobless recovery, local governments should stop creating senseless and abusive roadblocks that threaten the very existence of budding businesses. But what’s happened to Kim is more than just wrong; it’s unconstitutional. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals and businesses from vague laws like Arlington County’s that give government officials the authority to scrutinize a piece of art’s message to decide whether it may stay up or must come down. And just as the government may not restrict an entrepreneur’s speech directly, neither may it order that an entrepreneur remain silent or else risk fines or even being run out of business. To vindicate her rights to free speech and economic liberty, Kim has joined with the Institute for Justice to strike down Arlington’s zoning law and display her artwork to the world once more.
A New Life, Interrupted
Kim Houghton is pursuing her American Dream. After working for more than 20 years in advertising at The Washington Post, Kim decided that she needed to make a change. Her goal was to go into business for herself and do something that she deeply cared about. Upon surveying her life, Kim recognized that she loved her dogs and often spent hours with them at the nearby dog park. What’s more, she is on the board for ArlingtonDogs, a volunteer group that helps maintain all the Arlington dog parks and advocates for dogs and their owners. Once Kim learned about the concept of doggy daycare and grooming, she felt it was a perfect fit and strove to make her dream a reality.
Kim chose to open Wag More Dogs, a canine daycare, boarding and grooming business in an area of Arlington County, Va., known as Shirlington. Kim wanted to make Wag More Dogs into an upscale facility with a professional staff that was specially trained in dog behavior and handling. In July 2009, Kim began to hire various contractors and reconfigure an industrial building to house and groom the dogs she would soon service.
Wag More Dogs’ facility abuts the Shirlington Dog Park a popular recreational area for local dog owners where Kim had taken her dogs since 2004. As part of putting together her business, Kim wanted to replace the bare cinder block wall on the back of her building with artwork that would beautify the area. She did this not only to help her business, but to give something back to the dog park community that she had been a member of for so long. Kim commissioned a local artist to design and paint a picture of cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints that would be approximately 60 feet long and 16 feet high. Several weeks and $4,000 later, Kim’s mural was complete.
As can be seen above, the artwork that Kim created neither mentions Wag More Dogs nor contains any wording whatsoever. Still, a zoning official from Arlington County came to Wag More Dogs several months after the mural was finished and told Kim that her artwork was an illegal sign under the county’s zoning ordinance.
Like many municipalities, Arlington has a zoning ordinance regulating land use in the county. Part of that ordinance is Arlington’s sign codewhich both defines what a sign is and dictates what signs may be displayed in Arlington’s residential, commercial and manufacturing zones. According to the Zoning Administrator, the artwork was a sign under the ordinance because it was “used to direct, identify, or inform the public while viewing the same from outdoors.” In other words, Arlington officials concluded that the mural is a sign because it depicts things that are too closely related to Kim’s business and because (in the opinion of the Zoning Administrator) it subtly “led” would-be customers to Wag More Dog’s rear entrance. In an email, the Zoning Administrator made clear that Kim could have a mural depicting “anything . . . EXCEPT something to do with dogs, bones, paw prints, pets, people walking their dogs, etc.” Because Wag More Dogs is located in a manufacturing area, Arlington’s sign code says it may have no more than 60 square feet of signage, which is far less than the total area of Kim’s artwork.
Because of Kim’s illegal so-called “sign,” Arlington officials put a block on Wag More Dogs’ building permit, which made getting the business up and running impossible. With her business hemorrhaging money, Kim asked what she could do to get the certificate of occupancy she needed to open her doors. On August 13, 2010, Arlington officials replied by telling Kim that she would either have to paint over the mural entirely, change the dogs and bones to items that were unrelated to her business, or hide the mural behind a tarp. Kim reluctantly agreed to the last option and, on September 15, 2010, Wag More Dogs went into business, albeit with an ugly blue tarp covering its artwork and a certificate of occupancy that will be rescinded should Kim remove the tarp without prior permission.
Wag More Dogs’ opening has been a boon to both Kim and the larger Shirlington community. Wag More Dogs has hired trainers, groomers and receptionists to care for, feed and groom its canine clients. And when Kim takes her dogs into the park, many people tell her both how much they appreciate her business and how they wished she could uncover her artwork. As one local blogger put it, “As the recession forces small businesses to close their doors every day, it’s a shame that a business that is trying to open is being blocked for artwork that is so much more attractive than a gray cinderblock wall.”
But still the tarp remains. Arlington’s zoning administrator has said that Wag More Dogs could possibly resolve its problem by applying for a “comprehensive sign plan.” But under Arlington law, a comprehensive sign plan is nothing more than asking for the arbitrary approval of government officials. Just applying for a comprehensive sign plan is time consuming, can cost thousands of dollars and, as the zoning administrator frankly admitted, would likely not result in Kim securing the relief she needs.
Arlington County has made one other suggestion to Kim: She may keep her artwork if, at her own expense, she will paint “Welcome to Shirlington Park’s Community Canine Area” in four-foot high letters above the mural. Before she does this, however, Arlington officials told Kim that she must first send them a sketch of the proposed signage. They will then review it and tell her if it passes muster. In essence, Arlington wants Kim to hand over her art and turn it into the County’s sign.
Vague Laws Enable Capricious Officials, Stifle Entrepreneurs’ Freedom of Speech and Economic Liberty
These restrictions and demands by Arlington County have forced Kim to choose between her right to free speech and her right to earn an honest living. But this dilemma is not simply the result of a few government officials who have chosen to behave badly. Rather, it is the inevitable result of a legal system that gives government officials absolute discretion to treat entrepreneurs with absolute disdain.
The problems rest on the fact that, for several reasons, the Arlington sign ordinance is unconstitutional. The first problem is that the ordinance is hopelessly vague: Vague laws violate the First Amendment both because they fail to give people adequate notice of when they may speak, and because they give government officials such wide latitude that they implicitly authorize or even encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.
The Arlington Zoning Ordinance defines a sign as any “design . . . used to direct, identify, or inform the public.” But what does that definition mean in practice? Although some messages clearly fall within the “direct, identify or inform” criteria (such as a sign that says “Eat at Joe’s” and features a large arrow pointing towards the restaurant), many others would leave an ordinary citizen with no idea if she must get a permit before putting up her artwork or mural. Instead of running the risk of being investigated by zoning officials and fined, many people who would otherwise speak will remain silent.
In order to provide some structure, Arlington’s zoning ordinance calls on officials to closely inspect what an alleged sign says in order to decide whether it subject to regulation. But this only raises a new problem: Now a would-be speaker must figure out not what the vague words in the ordinance mean, but how the zoning administrator might possibly interpret them. Here, Arlington officials have candidly stated that their conclusion that Wag More Dog’s artwork is a sign rests on a determination that its portrayal of dogs, bones and paw prints is “too closely related” to the services that Kim offers. Similar situations have come up in Arlington County in recent months, including one involving a church banner and another involving a mixed-use development project that wanted to put a banner around its fence during construction, but was told that it could not depict anything about the project or the buildings they would put up. And so instead they had local artists give them paintings of clouds and waterfalls, which the Arlington County zoning official thought did not convey any information. Like Kim’s dog park mural, whether these images were considered “signs” turned on the zoning administrator’s subjective interpretation of what the law demands. Since there is no way of knowing for sure what the administrator will think about any specific sign, few will spend thousands of dollars and weeks of their time on a mere guess.
Because Arlington’s sign code requires county officials to divine a mural’s “message” in deciding if it can be regulated, it is an impermissible content-based restriction on speech. The First Amendment strongly disfavors restrictions like this precisely because of the threat they pose to people’s rights. As such, content-based restrictions are “presumptively invalid” and governments may impose them only if they can prove that the law passes the most rigorous of scrutiny. In an analogous case last year, a federal court struck down a city’s determination that a mural of marine life on the side of a bait and tackle shop was a “sign” because its content was related to the products the shop offered. The court held that because officials had to inspect the mural’s message to determine if it needed a permit, it was an impermissible content-based restriction on speech.
And time and again, that is exactly what Arlington County is doing when it comes to judging whether a mural is a sign: making an impermissible content-based restriction on speech. Arlington is claiming it has the authority to regulate Wag More Dog’s artwork based on a completely subjective determination that the artwork bears a relationship to Kim’s business. Placing unbounded discretion in the hands of government officials, though, is anathema to the idea that the First Amendment conveys upon individuals a right to speak, not a privilege to be doled out or withheld. But freedom of speech is not self-vindicating; to ensure that every American is free to express themselves, we rely on judges to protect innocent people from government officials who are bent on enforcing vague and unconstitutional laws. And that is exactly what the Institute for Justice is calling on the courts to do here.
The defendants in this case are Melinda A. Artman, who is being sued in her official capacity as the Zoning Administrator for Arlington County, and the County of Arlington, Va.
The Litigation Team
The Institute for Justice filed its complaint in this case, Wag More Dogs LLC v. Artman, on December 2, 2010. The litigation team for the Institute for Justice in this case is IJ Staff Attorneys Robert Frommer and Robert McNamara.
The Institute for Justice: A History of Protecting Free Speech and Economic Liberty
The Institute for Justice has a long history of successfully representing entrepreneurs nationwide who fought arbitrary government regulation, reviving the constitutional protection of the right to economic liberty—the right to earn an honest living in the occupation of one’s choice, free from excessive government regulation:
For more information, contact:
John E. Kramer
 The Institute for Justice has issued a series of reports about local barriers to entrepreneurship in cities across the United States. For more information, please visit http://www.ij.org/citystudies.
 Giovani Carandola, Ltd. v. Fox, 470 F.3d 1074, 1079 (4th Cir. 2006) (stating that an ordinance is impermissibly vague if it either “(1) ‘fails to provide people of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to understand what conduct it prohibits’ or (2) ‘authorizes or even encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.’”).
 http://www.tbd.com/blogs/tbd-neighborhoods/2010/10/church-s-banners-raise-more-questions-on-sign-law-3639.html. (Last visited November 3, 2010.)