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Free Speech Zone Runs Afoul of SLC Sign Ordinance

Local businesses challenge Salt Lake City signage regulations.

By Eric S. Peterson
Posted // May 3,2011 - 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.”

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Post a comment
Posted // May 6,2011 at 17:12 report location of CORPORATE banners to: corporate culture jamming! do it!


Posted // May 5,2011 at 06:05

This is a prime example of just how back asswards and bat shit crazy salt lake city, and the state of Utah are in terms of promoting buisness growth. You have the state choking the life out of small buisnesses by monopolizing the sale of alchohol, you have salt lake city, which apparently wants you to own a buisness there but don't want anyone to know about it, unless it's a starbucks or a 7-11. And let's not forget the mayor recently having a hissy fit about electric billboards, which I might add are only on the freeway. I'm all for keeping things classy but god damn if this ain't some bullshit. P.S. I think she should start selling porn, or "adult magazines" as they put it, you can advertise that with no problem!


Posted // May 3,2011 at 22:48

While we are at it how about banning all panhandler signs without a business permit! Ooh and here is another good one picketing signs without a business license! Oh wait a signs on people's shirts either - no band names or product endorsements or company logos!!!! ooooh no police badges either and no signs on the sides of peoples vehicles! No signs at all on any businesses!!! That way we have to walk into each store individually and have to figure out what kind of store it is by walking inside!!! This could be really fun!


Posted // May 3,2011 at 19:06

Sounds like the city should lay off.

That being said, I wonder how cool Cordray would think graffiti sprayed all over her nice building would be? It's probably only cool if it's on someone elses property with speech she agrees with.....


Posted // May 5,2011 at 10:39 - Gee, Eric that sounds reminiscent of the NRA,s "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" slogan when explaining why they want to put one in everybody's hands.


Posted // May 5,2011 at 06:08 - Methinks you are missing the point dude. And besides, you can buy paint at home depot, you have a problem with that too? It's not her problem what people do with the things they buy at her store.


Posted // May 4,2011 at 14:32 - But it is covered with graffiti. They have a graff-fest every few months and exhibit the work of local artists, paint over it and start all over again.


Posted // May 4,2011 at 01:15 - I find it sad that some people cannot get past the idea of ownership as an individual concept rather than a collective notion. The idea that graffiti is seen as a negative is only an opinion and one not even held by the art elite itself. Graffiti is the reclaiming of public space with personal art, it is saying that i exist and in this moment i am as valid as what is being sold to me, PR graffiti. Just because a company pays to spam viewers as they walk by day by day does not make it valid and it does not make it artful, just as graffiti does not necessarily raise something to the level of art. It is all about intention. Also Raphael allows graffiti artists to spray paint her property, in fact she holds an artist show case event that allows graffiti artists to learn or showcase their work on her property.


Posted // May 3,2011 at 12:08

to all good citizens: remember you can report chain stores who have up banners by sending a photo and address for the law breaking sites to this email:

c'mon y'all it's your civic duty!


Posted // May 3,2011 at 12:29 - So that would include huge banners on buildings for rent and lease all along the freeways, John Stockton Honda banner informing drivers the dealership is no longer affiliated with Larry Miller (I guess it's just Stockton To Stockton now), every restaurant in Utah, every day spa, every salon, every check cashing place, on and on? I could make the same case that billboards need to go, and then some style and usage guidelines for signs.