March 14, 2015

A win for free speech and the right to advertise in Alexandria

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

Today, the Alexandria City Council unanimously voted to repeal the ordinance challenged by our lawsuit, McLean v. City of Alexandria. The ordinance made it illegal to display a “For Sale” sign on cars parked on city streets. It did not ban the many other types of advertisements we see on cars, taxis, and buses everyday. It singled out one type of message for punishment by fine. While precedent allows government to get away with more controls of so-called “commercial speech,” the First Amendment does not allow the government to censor speech just because it does not value the message.

In October, we filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Scott McLean, arguing that the law violated his First Amendment right to speak about his desire to sell his truck. Less than one week later, the City announced that it would suspend enforcement of the law.  Now, less than one week before the final pretrial hearing, the City repealed the ordinance — which has been on the books for half a century — with no discussion.

That’s remarkable. Consider that in just the last five* years, the City ticketed over 700 people, bagging the City more than $28,000 in fines. That’s a lot of unhappy people and a lot of unconstitutional fines.

Now, thanks to our lawsuit, the City will no longer shake down the community by way of this unconstitutional law. This is good news for everyone who believes in free speech.

* Updated March 16, 4:15p.m. ET. This post originally said “the last four” years. But the City ticketed 717 people for violating the ordinance from January 2010 through October 2014 (when the City suspended enforcement of the law).  That’s four years and 10 months.

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