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Wednesday, June 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:18 A.M.

Court again says that sign rules violate Constitution

By Nick Perry
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Blazing Bagels owner Dennis Ballen won in court.
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A federal court has again found that the city of Redmond violated the constitutional rights of a bagel-shop owner by barring him from using a portable sign.

U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman yesterday upheld a temporary ruling that found Redmond's code unlawfully bans some signs based on their content.

The city had allowed people to temporarily display in public places sandwich boards and other small signs that promoted political candidates and advertised real estate — but had banned similar signs that advertised small businesses.

The case began last June when Redmond officials ordered Blazing Bagels owner Dennis Ballen to stop using a sign on a street corner. The sign, which read "Fresh Bagels Now Open," was worn by an employee.

The Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit representing entrepreneurs, stepped in and paid for Ballen's case.

In January, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly granted a preliminary injunction that allowed Ballen to continue using the sign.

Since then, sandwich boards have proliferated in downtown Redmond, said code-enforcement officer Deborah Farris. She said some have been chained to trees and others left on sidewalks, which she considers hazardous. She expects even more businesses to put signs out after the latest ruling.

City Attorney Jim Haney said he would discuss the ruling with city leaders and decide whether to appeal. "We are certainly disappointed," he said.

Ballen said business is up about 30 percent since he began using the sign again in January. He is delighted with the latest decision and with his brush with the justice system, he said.

"It's been a real eye-opener and a real experience," Ballen said. "I didn't realize the power of the First Amendment and of free-speech rights."

Ballen said it's only fair that if real-estate agents can use signs, he can, too.
But Councilman Richard Cole said that he and some others on the City Council may consider pushing for more restrictive sign rules written in a way to satisfy the court's concerns.

"We are really unhappy with this trashy look we are starting to get again with people putting out signs everywhere," Cole said. "It's not what the citizens want, either."

Institute for Justice attorney Bill Maurer said he is moving to have the decision published in official law reports so that it can be cited as precedent in similar cases across the nation.

"We are absolutely delighted; the judge correctly recognized that the city's law was irrational," Maurer said.

The institute already is representing a Lynnwood family that sells futons in a similar challenge to signage rules in that city, he said.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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