A Texans’ home is supposed to be his or her castle. But until mid-October, homeowners in Fort Worth had to ask the city government for permission to sell belongings from their garage or front yard. Although local officials have now removed that constraint, city laws still make it effectively impossible for residents to advertise their garage sales in North Texas’ second-largest city.
Even though the permit requirement is gone, the city’s convoluted sign policies, largely unknown to most residents, treat yard or garage sale signs much more harshly than other signs—like political signs, flags and “noncommercial residential signs.” Under the city’s discriminatory sign ordinance, anybody who puts a sign on a tree, telephone pole or elsewhere in the community to inform people of a garage sale’s existence, time and location — basic advertising needed for any sale’s success — would be subject to stiff government penalties.
But it gets worse: it is illegal — even on your own private property — to merely add a second sign or use common sign frames larger than 2 square feet to make sure your neighbors and passers-by are aware of your sale.
It’s not just garage sales — Fort Worth law presumes all portable signs to be illegal unless specifically exempted in the city code. This means anybody who puts up posters seeking the return of a lost pet is breaking the law. So is anybody who puts up a temporary sign of any kind “within 100 feet of another temporary sign.”
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And violating Fort Worth’s sign code is not a trivial nuisance like a traffic ticket. People who break the sign law could be convicted of a misdemeanor and fined up to $2,000 per day for each violation.
The Institute for Justice (IJ) is asking Fort Worth: Why does the government need to criminalize garage sales and lost pet signs?
Americans average 165,000 garage sales every week, generating more than $4 million for people across the country. Unconstitutionally harsh limits on sales and discriminatory restrictions on signs make it harder than necessary for hardworking Texans in Fort Worth to benefit from this long-standing national tradition.
Moreover, the First Amendment prohibits government policies that ban or restrict certain signs based on their content, as Fort Worth is doing. Attorneys for the Institute for Justice (IJ) argued this point in federal court earlier this year against Orange Park, Fla. (a suburb of Jacksonville), after local officials forced the removal — under threat of crippling fines — of a video game store’s inflatable Mario sign. Now, after months in storage, the Mario is back up, and Orange Park has agreed to work with IJ on a new sign code that passes constitutional muster.
Unfortunately, Fort Worth is not the only city in North Texas actively undermining the constitutional rights of its residents. This summer, officials in Arlington considered imposing severe restrictions, including a permit requirement, on garage sales — a proposal their constituents vigorously opposed. Over in Dallas, IJ attorneys are defending a mechanic against city officials’ campaign to shut down the successful business he built on his property.
As Fort Worth officials consider reforming the local garage sale ordinance, they should learn from Arlington’s and Orange Park’s mistakes by erring on the side of more freedom for their constituents. No government worth its salt should mess with Texans on their own property.
Arif Panju is the managing attorney for the Institute for Justice’s Texas office. He litigates economic liberty, First Amendment, property rights, school choice and other constitutional cases in federal and state courts.