Ban on Election Signs in Michigan Bars and Restaurants is Unconstitutional, ACLU Says in Lawsuit

October 18, 2012

DETROIT – In a federal lawsuit filed today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked a judge to strike down a Michigan Liquor Control Commission rule prohibiting businesses with liquor licenses from displaying election signs that endorse a political candidate or party.

“In a free society, business owners shouldn’t have to trade in their free speech rights for a liquor license,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director. “Political signs play a crucial role in elections and our local restaurants and taverns have always been social and political hubs. Singling out businesses with liquor licenses for censorship makes no sense and violates basic democratic principles.”

While today’s lawsuit was brought on behalf of a popular restaurant and bar in Ann Arbor called the Aut Bar, it will impact the free speech rights of restaurant, bar and liquor store owners throughout the state.

Several weeks ago, Aut Bar owner Martin Contreras posted signs in front of his business supporting John Dingell for Congress and Carole Kuhnke for Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge. However, after learning about the no-election-signs rule and consulting with the Liquor Control Commission staff, he removed the signs. The penalty for violating the rule ranges from a $300 fine to loss of a liquor license.

“When my partner, Keith Orr, and I opened the Aut Bar 17 years ago we wanted to open a positive and affirming gathering place for the men and women of the gay community, their families and friends,” said Contreras. “Our goal was not only to provide great food, but also a safe place for networking and information sharing especially surrounding political decisions that impact our families. It’s absurd that we are not able to display political candidate signs and must remain silent on these important issues simply because we serve alcohol."

The MLCC rule, which took effect in 1954, states that a business owner with a liquor license cannot display sign in support of a political candidate or party, except when the business owner is hosting a convention of delegates or during a fundraiser in which the business owner has received a special temporary license.

Yet, the same restaurants and bars may display commercial signs, signs about ballot initiatives and advocacy signs addressing any other social issue of the day. Additionally, owners of restaurants that do not serve alcohol may post election signs.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU of Michigan contends that the MLCC rule violates the First Amendment by denying individuals who own businesses that sell alcohol their right to express their views about political candidates. It will ask the federal court to issue a temporary restraining order so that election signs can be displayed at the Aut Bar before the November 6 election.

In addition to Steinberg, Contreras and the Aut Bar are represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorney Genevieve E. Scott.

Related News and Documents

Read the complaint in this free speech case

See a photo of the Aut Bar & their political sign