Unhappy Hour? Why This State’s Regulations on Bars’ Ads Go Too Far

April 5, 2018

by Terry Schilling


This article is part of a series focusing on Lens of Liberty, a project of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation

In her Liberty Minute titled “Modern Sign Language,” Helen Krieble discusses unfair advertisement laws in some American towns:

There were once so many highway billboards that people complained of sign pollution. So today many cities have restrictive sign codes. But are they about highway beautification or government picking winners and losers?

Towns from Redman, Washington, to Fairfax, Virginia, allow signs along the streets for political campaigns and for real estate — but not for any other businesses. One town allowed employees of the tax preparation business to stand on street corners waving signs at passing cars but denied that same permission to a bagel shop owner. The bagel shop owner looked through the lens of liberty and told the town counsel they were out of line. He sued and won, demonstrating once again the power of active citizens in America.

If an advertisement is not blatantly offensive, government should have no place prohibiting certain businesses from advertising publicly. Although regulators may hide behind a supposed concern for its citizens, the result is that such laws result in establishing winners and losers among businesses and sometimes even entire industries.

Another perfect example of this has recently arisen in Virginia, where laws restricting bars’ ability to advertise drink specials have come into the spotlight. Specifically, Virginia state law prohibits bars and restaurants from advertising happy hour drink prices outside their buildings, and if the bar gives specific details about special drink prices, the owners can have their license revoked for an entire week. Further, bars and restaurants are also banned from coming up with creative names to advertise special offers, instead being forced to refer to them as “happy hours” or “drink specials.”

It is not as if the advertisements would harm anyone — they would mainly be informing their customers as to drink prices for the evening. The Virginia government, however, has chosen to place the entire bar industry under the constraints of these regulations, even though they have not demonstrated that the law will help anyone.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm that actively defends liberty, is following the example of the bagel shop owner mentioned by Krieble and challenging the law in Virginia. If citizens are sincere about protecting individual liberty in an age of overregulation, they must be willing to fight in court to check the power of overzealous government bureaucrats.

Beyond court challenges, however, the “active citizens in America” that Krieble mentions should also consider using the power of their vote to affect change. This problem is certainly not limited to Virginia, and it will take a national effort to restore the liberty our country so desperately needs.


Terry Schilling is executive director of the American Principles Project.

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