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Free Speech Zone Runs Afoul of SLC Sign Ordinance

Local businesses challenge Salt Lake City signage regulations.


Free speech ain’t free. In fact, according to a Salt Lake City zoning notice received by downtown political art shop Free Speech Zone, it could cost as much as $100 a day for as long as owner Raphael Cordray decided to hang two vinyl banners on the outside of her business. Cordray’s shop at 411 S. 800 East, billed as the “progressive retail outlet for the activist in you,” is situated around fast-food joints that she says regularly flout the same ordinance. While her political activists’ boutique gets hit with citations,

Cordray says neighboring businesses display their cheeseburger banners with impunity.

“It’s just bullshit,” she says, citing numerous banners at fast-food restaurants like McDonald's and Del Taco. “If you walk around town, almost every business in town is in violation of one of these laws.”

City compliance officers say their hands are tied since enforcement efforts are driven only by complaints, but not every business is willing to accept that argument. The big daddy of challenging municipal sign ordinances, just so happens to be Big Daddy’s Pizza owner Kurt Micek, who has challenged and beat back city signage ordinance restrictions in Draper and Sandy, and plans to pick a fight with Salt Lake City in the near future.

“We’re at the point now where we’re ready to get our signs up, get our final warning from the city, and sue,” Micek says.

Cordray believes she only drew the city’s attention because of the wares her shop offers, which include spray paint for graffiti artists and even an anarchist lending library.

“The stuff we sell runs across the gamut of everything that’s controversial in Utah,” Cordray says. So when complaints were filed against her business twice in 2009, Cordray came to feel her shop was being targeted because of its political message. Cordray filed a records request with Salt Lake City and discovered that the initial complaint had alleged that she had people living inside her business and that she was also growing marijuana in her shop.

“I was pretty floored when I saw that,” Cordray says. While zoning investigators found no squatters or pot, they did inform her that she had to take down two large vinyl banners, hanging on a fence in front of her property. According to Salt Lake City ordinances, with rare exception, temporary signs and banners are not allowed to be displayed outside of homes and businesses.

Ironically, the banners the city told Cordray to take down were 2006 and 2007 City Weekly Best of Utah award banners, one of which was an award for “sticking it to the man.”

Cordray challenged the first complaint, and the city, she says, disregarded the issue for the most part, but in December 2009, she was hit with another complaint that forced her to take down the banners. That’s when Cordray began filing anonymous complaints with the city about large chain businesses that were in violation of the same ordinance to see how the city responded. At the start of this year, Cordray decided to hang the banners up again, only to be warned by the city that they needed to be taken down or they would be subject to civil fines of $100 a day.

“We don’t go looking for signage cases,” says Craig Weinheimer, legal investigator for the Salt Lake City office of Community & Economic Development. “We deal with them as they come in; we’re complaint driven. But I have to admit there are quite a few banners out there,” he says.

That’s a notion that exasperates Cordray, who says the signs that are permitted by the city are more expensive and difficult to get approved. For being about as anti-capitalist as a capitalist venture can be, Cordray struggles to understand the logic of a city’s ordinance she says is not only unfair, but is also cost-prohibitive to smaller businesses like hers.

“I could put a sign in my front yard that says ‘Fuck war’ and that would be free speech, but I can’t put sign outside my business that says ‘Come in and shop here’ without a permit,” Cordray says.

That’s why Cordray has become more aggressive in checking up on the city’s enforcement. While the city says it lost Cordray’s 2009 complaints about other businesses’ banners due to an IT error, Weinheimer says his office has responded to her complaints.

Cordray is still not convinced, especially after having complained about an area McDonald’s banner in mid-March. As of press time, the banner has remained on the store for more than 30 days—the city’s initial grace period for business owners to remove their banners.

“We have 3,000 enforcement cases every year, and 15 enforcement officers responding to various things, and not just signs,” Weinheimer says, arguing that his office is too busy to have an agenda.

But for Big Daddy Pizza's Kurt Micek, an unenforceable ordinance should remain that way—unenforceable—especially when it impacts businesses that can’t afford more expensive means of advertising.

“For us smaller businesses who don’t have the immediate means to advertise via billboards or through newspapers, radio and TV—the only way for us to attract people is store signage,” Micek says.

Micek says his legal battle with Sandy has made it so city compliance officers there simply avoid citing his business. In August 2010, the city of Draper settled a two-year lawsuit with his company over banners, awarding him $10,750. Micek argued that if fairly applied, signage ordinances that ban temporary signs like banners should also apply to real-estate “For Sale” and “For Rent” signs. Putting the city in the uncomfortable position of defending double standards in the ordinance, as evidenced with real-estate signs, helped win Micek’s battles in Draper and Sandy, and he believes it will win for him against Salt Lake City.

Currently, Micek is doing spring renovations of his 470 S. 700 East location, but once he finishes, he plans to put his banners—and dukes— up for a new fight. For Micek, the principle of the fight is probably more important than his financial bottom line.

“Listen, guys,” Micek says, “you need to treat everyone in the whole city equally, and when you do that, fine, we’ll abide by whatever the Constitution allows us.”