Ann Arbor restaurant challenges no-political sign rule

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is challenging a rule prohibiting businesses with liquor licenses from displaying election signs that endorse a political candidate or party.

The ACLU of Michigan asked a judge to strike down the rule, which was imposed by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.

"In a free society, business owners shouldn't have to trade in their free speech rights for a liquor license," said Michael J. Steinberg, ALCU 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."

This lawsuit was brought on behalf of Ann Arbor's popular restaurant and bar, Aut Bar. Several weeks ago, owner Martin Contreras posted signs in front of his business supporting John Dingell for Congress and Carole Kuhnke for Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge. After learning about the no-election-sign 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 a loss of the 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 men and women of the gay community, their families and friends," Careras said. "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 rule, which took effect in 1954, states that a business owner with a liquor license cannot display signs 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. The same restaurants and bars may display commercial signs, signs about ballot initiatives and advocacy signs addressing any other social issue. Additionally, owners of restaurants that do not serve alcohol may post election signs.

The ACLU of Michigan contends in the lawsuit that the MLCC rule violates the First Amendment by denying individuals who own businesses that sell alcohol their right to express their views. The lawsuit asks the federal court to issue a temporary restraining order so that election signs can be displayed at the Aut Bar before the November 6th election.

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