Ann Arbor bar fights state Liquor Control Commission over no-election-signs rule

ACLU, Aut Bar file suit against MLCC's ban on political signs displayed at establishments serving liquor

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DETROIT - In a federal lawsuit filed Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked a judge to strike down a Michigan Liquor Control Commission rule prohibiting businesses with liquor licenses from displaying election signs that endorse a political candidate or party.

"In a free society, business owners shouldn't have to trade in their free speech rights for a liquor license," said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director. "Political signs play a crucial role in elections and our local restaurants and taverns have always been social and political hubs. Singling out businesses with liquor licenses for censorship makes no sense and violates basic democratic principles."

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of a Ann Arbor bar.

Martin Contreras, the owner of the Aut Bar, is challenging the ruling saying it's a violation of the First Amendment.

Contreras posted signs in front of his business supporting John Dingell for Congress and Carole Kuhnke for Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge .

However, after learning about the no-election-signs rule and consulting with the Liquor Control Commission staff, he removed the signs. 

The penalty for violating the rule ranges from a $300 fine to loss of a liquor license.

Restaurants and bars may display commercial signs, signs about ballot initiatives and advocacy signs addressing any other social issue of the day. 

Additionally, owners of restaurants that do not serve alcohol may post election signs.

State rules also let bars post signs on other issues, such as war, health care, abortion or even some of the six questions on Michigan's fall ballot.

But candidate signs are prohibited. The rule dates back to 1954.
The ACLU says the lawsuit will  impact the free speech rights of  restaurant, bar and liquor store owners throughout the state. 

"When my partner, Keith Orr, 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," said Contreras. "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. It's absurd that we are not able to display political candidate signs and must remain silent on these important issues simply because we serve alcohol."

The ACLU will ask the federal court to issue a temporary restraining order so that election signs can be displayed at the Aut Bar before the November 6 election.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.