by Jacob Huebert
What does it take to start your own business in Chicago?
You would probably guess that it requires jumping through some bureaucratic hoops, but you might not imagine that you need to get government permission and give hundreds of dollars to the city and certain politically privileged businesses just to put your name on the door.
Under a section of the Chicago Municipal Code, you need a permit to put up a sign to make the public aware of your business. As a not-so-helpful guide from the City Department of Buildings explains, the definition of a “sign” is very broad: It includes any “name, identification, description, display, illustration, or character which is affixed to, or represented directly or indirectly upon a building, structure, or piece of land and which directs attention to an object, product, place, activity, person, institution, organization, or business.”
That means you literally cannot stencil your name on your business’s door without a permit from the city.
What does getting a permit entail? It’s no mere formality, and it’s not cheap. To get a permit, the law mandates that you hire a licensed and bonded “sign erector” to file an application on your behalf. This will require the sign erector to do something that the city apparently believes only a professional can handle: fill out an online form with information such as how big the sign will be, where it will be and what it will say.
A would-be business owner doesn’t just have to pay the sign erector to complete the application; he also has to pay the City a fee ranging from $200 to $500 for its trouble in processing the application.
Undoubtedly, it doesn’t occur to some startup entrepreneurs that they would need a permit to put a simple sign up, so they just go ahead and do it – and then face fines of up to $10,000 per sign when the city catches them.
Go beyond the simplest small sign, and you get even deeper into complex requirements and restrictions that you may need a lawyer to navigate.
All of this, of course, has nothing to do with the only constitutional reason a state or local government can pass a law: to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare. Instead, this has everything to do with providing income to the city and to the relatively few businesses to whom the city has granted sign-erector licenses.
In other words, it’s just the sort of scheme you’d expect from America’s most corrupt city.
This law should be repugnant to anyone who values free enterprise and who believes that ordinary people should be able to pursue the dream of starting their own business to support themselves and their families. Walking the streets near my home in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood and seeing the variety of small businesses there, I marvel that any of them managed to come into existence at all in light of all the obstacles like this that the city puts in their way. I also look at all the vacant storefronts – and our dismal economic condition – and it’s easy to understand why those exist.
This law should also deeply offend anyone who values the First Amendment. No one should ever have to ask the government’s permission to say a particular thing before he or she says it. The law’s requirement that a business owner tell the government in advance what a sign will say is inexcusable and patently unconstitutional.
The law opens the door to the government refusing to allow signs that say things it doesn’t like – and that’s exactly what happened when Alderman Robert Fioretti decided he didn’t like a hot-dog restaurant that employed ex-convicts calling itself “Felony Frank’s.” Fioretti refused to approve a sign permit for the restaurant, and he and the City Council held up its application for two years. The city finally granted a sign permit only after the restaurant’s owner, Jim Andrews, filed a federal lawsuit (which is still pending) seeking $293,000 in damages for the violation of his constitutional rights.
How many other businesses that didn’t make the news and couldn’t afford to wait two years have been killed because of politicians’ arbitrary and unconstitutional exercises of power like this?
How many people in Chicago are unemployed as a result? At the Liberty Justice Center, we would like to see that number reduced to zero by having this unjust law stricken from the books. If you know someone who has run afoul of Chicago’s sign police – or is concerned that they might – please e-mail, or call us at (312) 263-7668.