The term “sign-walkers” summons up images of flimsy foam Statue of Liberty crowns and shady neighborhoods, but Bryan Sanchez has made it into an art form. He moves the sign like a break-dancing prop, tossing it and flipping it and spinning it on his head, contorting his body subtly beneath it.
For this, Scottsdale, Arizona, deems Sanchez a criminal, a scourge, and a blight on the landscape. In the mid-2000s, the city passed an ordinance that makes sign-spinning as a form of commercial advertising a criminal violation, subjecting anyone who practices it on public property to a class-1 misdemeanor, the same category of violation as a DUI.
Scottsdale’s longstanding ban is now the subject of a summer lawsuit that will determine the fate of Scottsdale sign-spinners such as Sanchez and the businesses that employ them.
In response to Scottsdale’s initial ban, the Arizona legislature passed a law stipulating that all municipalities in the state must allow sign-spinners and sign-walkers, allowing them to regulate these practices only “in a reasonable time, place and manner.” And after Scottsdale’s strict limitations prevailed in a superior court, the legislature amended the law, explicitly stating that cities can’t ban sign-spinning from public sidewalks.
Now, Scottsdale is suing the state in the Maricopa County Superior Court, claiming that its status as a charter city exempts it from the Arizona sign-spinning law. (A city spokesman provided records about the ordinance but informed National Review Online that no one would be available for an interview by deadline.)
Arizona’s law presupposes that sign-spinning, even as a form of commercial advertising, is protected by the First Amendment, says Representative Bob Robson, a Republican from Chandler who helped draft the legislation.
“Scottsdale is basically fighting because they [claim they] have a right to aesthetics,” Robson says, “so aesthetics trumps free speech in Scottsdale.”
Jim Torgeson, owner of Sign King of Arizona, has challenged the city ordinance from the beginning, and last week the Maricopa County Superior Court ruled that he could join the state of Arizona as a defendant.
Torgeson’s lawyer, Kurt Altman of the Goldwater Institute, tells NRO: “The focus of our case is the general, facial challenge based on constitutionally protected speech rights.”
Torgeson, who has been personally ticketed for sign-spinning, says the ordinance not only violates free speech but also has hurt his business and his employees. Today, he employs around 40 sign-spinners — everyone from high-school and college students to long-term unemployed workers to retirees on a tight budget.
Though the work is part-time, accomplished sign-spinners can earn up to $22 an hour, well over the minimum wage. In better economic times, Torgeson says, he even used to seek out families who had lost their homes, offering them a chance to work, then paying them bonuses so they could settle in new apartments.
But if the city prevails in upholding its ordinance, Torgeson says, he may well be forced to close his company. Meanwhile, Altman notes that instead of directly targeting businesses, Scottsdale’s ordinance goes after the individual sign-spinners, who are often low-income, part-time workers who desperately need these jobs.
Sanchez, the expert sign-spinner for Aarrow Advertising, is a prime example of someone who built a life around this opportunity. “I started sign-spinning when I was in college as a part-time job,” he says, adding that he was originally drawn by the $15-an-hour wage. “I went to an audition, learned a couple of tricks, and realized it was different from what I was expecting.”
Over the years, Sanchez has worked himself up from a spinner to a trainer to a general manager, and today, he says, he’s paying it forward by trying to create opportunities for 16- to 25-year-olds, hosting job fairs at high schools and non-profits. “We tend to recruit anybody who’s hard-working,” Sanchez says.
But working in Scottsdale has become increasingly difficult, Sanchez tells me. He has personally received numerous warnings from the police; once, an officer even severely reprimanded him while he was carrying a sign for a local church. And he has also received two tickets, accompanied by hundreds of dollars in fines. Aarrow Advertising paid them, Sanchez says, but he nevertheless felt intimidated.
“Take the fall, take the fee, and you serve no time” and see no increase in the fine, Sanchez says. “I go out to Scottsdale and feel I have to watch myself while spinning.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.