IJ goes to court today to unleash free speech

Rob Frommer Contributor
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Daily Caller readers know that America’s road to economic recovery won’t begin in Washington, D.C. It will start in the homes and offices of entrepreneurs who risk it all to bring an idea to life.

As the nation’s leading legal advocate for economic liberty, the Institute for Justice goes to bat for these entrepreneurs every single day. We file lawsuits on their behalf, take their cause to the court of public opinion, and help mobilize efforts for them at the grassroots.

Today, I’ll be appearing before the Honorable Leonie M. Brinkema in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. I’m representing Kim Houghton in a local case that has turned heads nationwide.

A couple months ago we found out about what was happening to Kim, right in our own backyard. And, simply put, we decided that we really had no choice. We had to make a federal case out of it.

You may have heard Kim’s story.

For more than 20 years, Kim Houghton sold advertising at The Washington Post. But she wanted more. She sought a new direction that would let her work on something she felt passionate about: dogs. And so she decided to leave the security of her Post career and become an entrepreneur.

After months of hard work, Kim succeeded in realizing her American Dream by opening Wag More Dogs — a high-end canine daycare, boarding and grooming business.

Kim rented a building next to an Arlington County dog park and began to get Wag More Dogs up and running. In order to give back to the dog park she had gone to for years and create some good will for her business, Kim commissioned a 16 by 60 foot mural that depicts some happy cartoon dogs, bones, and paw prints.

For three months the painting sat without issue, with dog park patrons telling Kim how much they liked it compared to the ugly cinder block walls that dominated the park.

Then, one day, Arlington officials blocked Kim’s building permit.

Kim was told that Wag More Dogs could not open until she painted over her happy cartoon dogs. The problem (in the eyes of the bureaucrats) was that Kim’s artwork had “a relationship” with her business. She was told that if her painting had depicted something else — something like dragons or ponies — that would have been fine. But because Wag More Dogs is a dog business, government officials forced Kim to purchase and put up an ugly blue tarp that has covered her painting for over four months.

Arlington’s law gives government officials absolute discretion to treat Kim and entrepreneurs like her with absolute disdain.

That is why the Institute for Justice had to get involved. In December, we teamed up with Kim and filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf.

We argue that the First Amendment does not let the government play art critic. Arlington’s sign ordinance is unconstitutional because it is hopelessly vague and because it imposes special burdens on some paintings based on who painted them and what they depict.

The Washington Post wrote a sharp critique of the law in an editorial titled, aptly, Arlington County’s hounding of a dog-care business makes no sense. It concludes:

[S]he filed suit in federal court with the help of the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm. The suit argues Ms. Houghton’s First Amendment right to express herself through art is being abridged. And it notes that there would not have been a problem if the mural depicted flowers, dragons or ponies instead of dogs. The absurdity that reveals should cause Arlington residents to wonder about their government’s grasp of common sense.

Today I will ask the judge for a preliminary injunction, meaning we want the court to temporarily stop the city from enforcing this terrible law until our lawsuit strikes it down for good.

When we prevail, we will have done more than just help Kim tear down a tarp. We will have advanced the cause of liberty by vindicating in federal court a simple but incredibly important legal principle: Under the First Amendment the right to speak is just that, a right — not a privilege for government officials to dole out as they please.

What do you think about Kim’s lawsuit? Please let us know on our Facebook page.

Robert Frommer serves as a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice. He joined the Institute in August 2008 and litigates cases to protect political speech, promote economic liberty, and secure individuals’ rights to private property.