After All That Legal Wrangling Over Dallas's Sign Ordinance, Now the City's Doing a Rewrite?

For two years Matt Miller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter, fought with the city of Dallas in federal court over the 2008 ordinance that prohibits store owners from covering the top two-thirds of their windows with advertisements. The IJ brought the suit on behalf of several local shop owners who claimed the ordinance -- which was championed by Dwaine Caraway, who'd said stores with signs "just trash up the community" -- was a "blatant" First Amendment violation that's hurt small businesses trying to get the word out to would-be customers. The city responded by saying, "The courts have repeatedly held that a city may have content-neutral sign regulations as long as they are reasonable and advance a significant governmental interest."

But then, in June the Institute for Justice dropped the suit against the city, insisting Dallas officials were going to fine their clients $1,000 a day every day they were in violation of the ordinance. Said Miller in a statement, "Unfortunately, few small businesses can risk $300,000 in fines, however remote that risk might be. Our clients were forced to abandon their case or face possible bankruptcy."

So, then, how to explain this? Next week, the City Plan Commission will discuss, per its just-posted meeting agenda, "Window Sign Special Exception language." Which says, in short:

The proposed amendment would allow the Board of Adjustment to review proposed window signs on a case by case basis, provides standards to use in that review, and to determine if the signage is necessary for the branding and identity of the store.

The amendment, which says the exemptions would only be allowed if "the proposed signs do not prevent someone outside from seeing into the business," can be found at the end of next week's agenda. Once it goes through the CPC, of course, it'll come before the city council.

Caraway tells Unfair Park he didn't know about the proposed rewrite, and that "I am going to stand strong with the ordinance as it was first proposed and passed unless someone can show me" why a change is necessary. "We won our case, so why are we making a change? Everyone is not complying, and the ordinance is working well in my district."

I called Miller for his thoughts as well. He asked for a copy of the proposal, then called back after he'd read it. His response: "So the city is acknowledging that speech is important for businesses, but now I have to get their permission before I do it. The government still shouldn't be in the business of deciding what businesses can say to their customers. The good news is this will give some businesses some chance of communicating with their customers. It's an improvement, however minor. But I'll be see to see how many of these are approved."

I asked if he was frustrated that the city was entertaining these changes two years after the suit was filed, and two months after it was dropped.

"No, because our only goal in suing the city was to change a bad law," he says. "It would have been nice if they would have gotten rid of the law entirely, but any time they move the law in a direction that's more friendly to commercial speech, that's an improvement. It will be very interesting to see if this becomes a routine thing."

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