Free Speech Dog Fight in Arlington

Business owner sues over county order

A mural of cartoon puppies and bones on the side of an Arlington pet daycare business has resulted in a federal court case.

Kim Houghton, owner of Wag More Dogs, spent $4,000 on the mural, which is on a side of her business that abuts a Shirlington dog park. She called it beautification. Arlington County called it a big ad.

While Houghton concedes that some of the cartoon dogs resemble canines in her company logo, she says she deliberately avoided any text that would associate the mural with her business. That wasn’t enough for the county, which told her to remove the mural.

She was also offered a compromise: If she added four-foot-high letters with the exact phrase “Welcome to Shirlington Park's Community Canine Area,” the county would leave her alone. Houghton’s lawyer said that would cost her $7,000 -- and would not fit on the side of the building.

Rather than roll over, Houghton contacted the libertarian Institute for Justice, which filed a free speech lawsuit in federal court on Thursday. Attorney Robert Frommer told the AP that Houghton was told a mural was fine -- as long as it depicted anything but dogs. Frommer said, “The problem with Arlington sign code [is] whether a sign can go up or not or whether artwork can go up or not depends on the identity of who is speaking and what it is they're saying.”

Houghton said, “Arlington County is trying to take my art and turn it into their sign. The county said, for the mural to not be considered a sign, it may depict anything I like except something to do with dogs, bones, paw prints, pets or people walking their dogs. … This is a violation of my freedom of speech and I intend to fight this with everything I’ve got.”

Houghton's lawyers say the law violates the First Amendment because it lets government officials determine whether the mural's content makes it art or an ad. While Frommer says the government has the right to regulate commercial signage, the fact that the mural says nothing about Houghton’s business should place it outside regulation.

“The First Amendment doesn’t let the government play art critic, yet that is what’s going on in Arlington,” Frommer said. “The Institute for Justice is fighting on behalf of Kim and other entrepreneurs like her nationwide -- to free them from the arbitrary and abusive use of government power that stifles small businesses. No one should have to choose between their right to speak and their right to earn an honest living.”

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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