Sure sign of trouble: When bureaucrats become art critics

"Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place."

-- Frederic Bastiat

It's the attitude that gets me.

To the bureaucratic mind, profit is an obscenity, free speech is offensive and a sense of humor is repugnant.

The latest example of this mind-set comes courtesy of the Washington Examiner and our friends at the Institute for Justice. In an op-ed piece, Institute for Justice attorney Robert Frommer reports that a mural painted on the wall of a doggie day care and grooming business has run into the jaws and claws of Arlington County, Va., zoning authorities.

Kim Houghton, owner of Wag More Dogs, committed the unpardonable sin of not getting the indulgence of her masters in government before spending $4,000 to have a mural of cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints painted on the side of her building, which faces an adjacent dog park.

"I was inspired by this dog park to create this business, and the mural is really a gift to the community," Houghton says. "I put it there so that the people walking past here will have something nice, besides a huge brick wall, to look at."

The county zoning administrator has forced her to cover the mural, because … wait for it … it is an illegal sign. Houghton says she was told she could paint dragons, ponies or flowers on her wall, but nothing related to her chosen vocation.

That, to the First Amendment, is original sin. Government may not ban speech, and a mural is most assuredly speech, based solely on its content.

"What has happened to Kim and Wag More Dogs is the inevitable result of a legal system that gives government officials absolute discretion to treat entrepreneurs with disdain," Frommer writes in the Examiner op-ed piece. "Arlington broadly defines a 'sign' as anything that 'is used to direct, identify, or inform the public.' This standard is both hopelessly vague and requires officials to rigorously inspect not only a painting's message but the identity of the person who put it up.

"This is flatly unconstitutional. The First Amendment does not let government officials play art critic or decide what speech to burden based on who is doing the talking."

Frommer pointed out that the ordinance has no bearing on public health or safety. He noted an auto parts store could paint a mural of children playing, but not one of them playing with cars, while the child care center next door could depict cars, but not children.

"Arbitrary and pointless distinctions like this are simply incompatible with the Constitution," the attorney concludes.

The Institute for Justice is filing a lawsuit to seek to strike the county sign ordinance as unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, the county forced her to drape the mural with ugly blue tarps or have her business license revoked.

Must be something unique to Virginia, you say. Can't happen here. Guess again, art lovers.

Las Vegas and Henderson have nearly identical exemptions to their ordinances regulating signs. Las Vegas' regulatory exemption is for:

"Works of art or decorative architectural graphics that do not include a commercial message and are not symbolic of any commercial business and are not symbolic of commercial activities taking place on the premise on which the graphic is located …"

Fellow citizen, it could happen to you.

With that, let us pause and say happy birthday to the Bill of Rights, ratified on Dec. 15, 1791. We can celebrate the birth even though it died of neglect long ago.

Though James Madison at first balked at the necessity of a Bill of Rights, many of the states ratifying the Constitution insisted on delineated prohibitions on the powers of the new government.

In answer to those concerns, Madison drafted 17 amendments, modeling them largely on George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights, written in 1776. The number of amendments was eventually reduced to 12. On Dec. 15, 1791, articles three through 12 were ratified by the required number of states.

Seven years later, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Bill of Rights has been under assault ever since from here to Virginia.

Thomas Mitchell is senior opinion editor of the Review-Journal. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at Read his blog at