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No Dogs Allowed! Judge Brinkema Upholds Arlington’s Sign Ordinance

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As you know, I was rooting for Wag More Dogs, the Arlington doggie daycare adjacent to the Shirlington Dog Park that took on Arlington’s sign ordinance in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.  Judge Brinkema took Arlington County’s motion to dismiss under advisement, and has recently weighed in, unfortunately ruling against Wag More Dogs.

Arlington County’s sign ordinance defines “sign” as “[a]ny word, numeral, figure, design, … [or] display … used to direct, identify, or inform the public while viewing the same from outdoors.”  The ordinance requires a permit before a business can display a sign, and limited Wag More Dogs to three signs totaling no more than 60 square feet.  The $4000 mural is 16 feet by 60 feet – 960 square feet. 

The County declared the mural a prohibited sign, and gave Wag More Dogs three options:  (1) pay a non-refundable $1,782 fee for a special exception permit which may be granted or denied; (2) paint something else unrelated to the business like flowers over the dogs and bones; or (3) paint “Welcome to Shirlington Park’s Community Canine Area in four-foot high letters above the mural to create an informational sign that would not need a permit.  Retaining the mural would result in civil fines and possibly even criminal prosecution.

Wag More Dogs decided to fight back, and filed suit in federal court, bringing a First Amendment challenge against Arlington County’s sign ordinance.  The County responded with a motion to dismiss, which Judge Brinkema heard last month.  Earlier this month, Judge Brinkema issued a 33-page Memorandum Opinion.

Judge Brinkema’s first line of business was to decide whether the federal court had subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute.  The County argued that Wag More Dogs lacked standing to challenge the sign ordinance because its mural was so clearly in violation of the ordinance.  I didn’t really follow this or why the County even tried to make this argument.  Judge Brinkema easily found that Wag More Dogs had standing, which takes three things:  (1) injury in fact – losing the mural and suffering civil fines and criminal prosecution is about as straightforward as injury gets; (2) causation – the ordinance itself spells out the penalties constituting the “injuries in fact”; and (3) redressability – striking down the ordinance would redress Wag More Dogs’ issues with the statute.

So far, so good for Wag More Dogs.  But unfortunately, this is where Wag More Dogs’ luck runs out.

Judge Brinkema’s opinion goes on to analyze Wag More Dogs’ constitutional challenges, which came in three layers:  (1) the ordinance violates Wag More Dogs’ right to free speech and artistic expression; (2) the ordinance is overbroad and vague; and (3) the County’s alternatives restrain speech or unconstitutionally compel speech.

Looking first at the free speech argument, Judge Brinkema had to determine what level of scrutiny would apply to the sign ordinance.  Quintessential political or artistic speech earns the highest form of scrutiny – strict scrutiny.  But Judge Brinkema concluded what was at issue is a content neutral ordinance aimed at commercial speech, warranting only intermediate scrutiny. 

The intermediate scrutiny test requires the sign ordinance to serve a “substantial” government interest, in a manner that is “in proportion” to that interest and no more restrictive than necessary to achieve it.  The purposes of the sign ordinance are traffic safety and avoiding visual clutter, which courts have not hesitated to conclude are “substantial” government interests.  Judge Brinkema also found that the sign ordinance was in proportion with its interest, because it merely restricted the size and number of signs without banning commercial speech.

Next, Judge Brinkema analyzed Wag More Dogs’ argument that the ordinance was overbroad and vague.  Wag More Dogs made both a “facial challenge” and an “as applied” challenge.  For the facial challenge based on vagueness, Wag More Dogs would need to show that no set of circumstances exists under which the law would be valid.  Judge Brinkema had no problem finding that the ordinance, and its definition of “sign” as something that “directs, identifies or informs,” was not vague because it used words of common usage, with plain and ordinary meanings easily understood by the average person. 

For the “as applied” challenge, Wag More dogs pointed to an email from County Zoning Administrator Artman saying that “the mural cannot show anything that has any relationship with your business,” such as “dogs, bones, paw prints, pets, people walking their dogs, etc.”  Judge Brinkema was not troubled by this “any relationship” test, saying that Wag More Dogs failed to allege the County even really uses that test, and that even if it did, a reasonable person could easily understand and apply the test.

Lastly, Judge Brinkema analyzed the County’s proffered alternatives of applying for a special exception permit, painting over the mural or adding language to it.  Judge Brinkema handily dismissed these arguments.  She found that the County’s special exception permit scheme needed only adequate standards and a fair opportunity for judicial review, which were built into the County’s Comprehensive Sign Plan.  Regarding painting over the mural, or adding language to make the mural an informational sign, Judge Brinkema noted that these was only options, and could not be considered unconstitutionally compelled speech.

In the end, Judge Brinkema granted the County’s motion to dismiss, ending the case at a very early stage.  We’ll see if the Institute for Justice continues the fight with an appeal.

As unfair as it may seem, the truth is that it takes a lot to strike down an ordinance.  You can see how difficult it was, even when the right to free speech was at issue.  At least Wag More Dogs had the benefit of intermediate scrutiny for its constitutional challenge, and Judge Brinkema still did not hesitate to uphold the sign ordinance.  Imagine if free speech were not an issue.  With statutes like breed specific legislation, there is no heightened scrutiny, with courts applying a “rational basis” test.  You will hear me moan about this when I start blogging about breed specific legislation – I promise, it’s coming!

While there may be some basis behind Arlington’s sign ordinance, the ordinance produces inconsistencies that are hard to deal with.  For instance, if Wag More Dogs were beside a flower shop, theoretically the flower shop could put up the Wag More Dogs mural, and Wag More Dogs could paint flowers on its wall.  As another example, graffiti like what has been tagged on the walls of The Muddy Mutt next door is not off-limits.  I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather look at the Wag More Dogs mural.

Author: Heidi Meinzer

Attorney and Animal Lover, not necessarily in that order

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