Alexandria’s ban on signs violates the First Amendment

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Alexandria’s ban on signs violates the First Amendment
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By Scott Roy McLean (File photo)

Most people would assume they were well within their rights as Americans to hang a “For Sale” sign in their car window.

But they would be wrong. In 2012, I put a “For Sale” sign in the window of my car and was stunned the next day to find a parking violation notice waiting on my windshield.

What was my crime? In Alexandria, as well as in many other municipalities around the country, city councils have banned such signs, having forgotten the First Amendment in their zealous efforts to eradicate the perceived blight of cars being advertised for sale.

This may seem like a small problem, but laws like this are a symptom of a broader philosophical error that has crept into the mindset of American bureaucrats.  They believe that certain kinds of speech — particularly advertising — are less important, and deserve less constitutional protection, than other kinds of speech.

Thus, elected officials who would never dream of trying to censor a political ad or a magazine don’t think twice about forbidding people from advertising products or services.

But this commercial speech is central to what the First Amendment is about.  I don’t know about you, but I cannot think of a form of expression that is more important to more people than expression that affects their pocketbooks. To think that a truthful statement about a product or service is less valuable is dangerous and wrong.

The First Amendment does not distinguish between the kinds of speech that are worth protecting. Neither should government.

Yet governments regularly single out different types of advertisements for censorship. These laws allow government agents, rather than residents, to choose what speech the public may hear and what speech may be banned.

Restrictions on advertising also disproportionately hurt the poor. This is obvious with Alexandria’s “For Sale” sign ban. While wealthy car dealers can afford television or radio ads, the poor are more likely to need to sell their car themselves and have no more effective way to advertise than with a simple sign.

Advertising bans, like other forms of censorship, also fail the test of common sense. As Alexandria’s law is written, I could have put a “For Sale” sign in my car window without receiving a ticket as long as the thing being advertised as up for sale was my dog, my couch or my friend’s car. I could drive around town with a “For Sale” sign, too. People are free to place any number of messages on their cars in the form of advertisements, bumper stickers and vanity plates.

But I can’t park my car with a “For Sale” sign on it without breaking the law.

What can be done to fix laws that violate the First Amendment and denigrate commercial speech? Stand up and speak out. I reached out to the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit, donor-supported national legal watchdog organization that represents clients free of charge. We have filed a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Alexandria’s censorship law.

Together, we hope to set an important legal precedent forcing our elected officials to respect the First Amendment in all its dimensions, and to protect the freedom to express economic ideas like any other.

The writer is a resident of Alexandria.

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