As of Wednesday, bar and restaurant owners in Michigan can now display signs for candidates campaigning for public office. They can thank the owners of the Aut Bar in Ann Arbor, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC), for the decision.
In response to a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the MLCC has decided to stop enforcing a 1954 rule prohibiting election signs from establisments with liquor licenses. The MLCC also agreed to speed up the process of eliminating the rule entirely.
In a press release, ACLU of Michigan legal director Michael J. Steinberg praised the MLCC's decison.
“With the election just two weeks away, we are pleased that the Liquor Control Commission has agreed to stop enforcing an archaic rule that violated the free speech rights of Michigan bar and restaurant owners for more than 50 years. As of today, restaurant, bars and liquor store owners throughout the state are free to display election signs on their own property without fear of being fined or losing their liquor license.”
The story began several weeks ago, when Aut Bar owner Martin Contreras posted signs in front of his business supporting John Dingell for Congress and Carole Kuhnke for Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge. He then learned about the MLCC's rule against election signs, which carried penalties ranging from a $300 fine to loss of a liquor license. After consulting with the Liquor Control Commission staff, he removed the signs.
He also sued with the help of the ACLU.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU of Michigan argued that the MLCC rule violated the First Amendment by denying individuals who own businesses that sell alcohol their fundamental right to express their views about political candidates while allowing signs on virtually any other topic -- including commercial signs, signs about ballot initiatives and advocacy signs addressing social issues.
At the time the suit was filed, Contreras explained the rationale for his action.
“When my partner and I opened the Aut Bar 17 years ago we wanted to open a positive and affirming gathering place for the men and women of the gay community, their families and friends. 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."
That was last Thursday. Less than a week later, the MLCC relented. The signs will be going back up.