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Posted on Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Aut Bar owners hope court will allow political campaign signs on their property before Nov. 6

By Ryan J. Stanton

The owners of Aut Bar in downtown Ann Arbor remain hopeful they'll be able to put political campaign signs back up outside their business before the Nov. 6 election.

"We tend to be kind of a political bar," said Keith Orr, who opened the popular Kerrytown establishment 17 years ago with his partner, Martin Contreras.

In a federal lawsuit filed on Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked a judge to strike down a Michigan Liquor Control Commission rule that prohibits businesses that serve alcohol from displaying election signs that endorse a political candidate or party.


Martin Contreras and Keith Orr, who opened Aut Bar in downtown Ann Arbor 17 years ago, hold up two of the signs they're not allowed to have on their property due a 1954 state rule.

Courtesy photo

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Aut Bar by the ACLU, which believes the case will impact the free speech rights of alcohol-serving establishments throughout the state.

"In a free society, business owners shouldn't have to trade in their free speech rights for a liquor license," said Michael Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan's legal director. "Political signs play a crucial role in elections and our local restaurants and taverns have always been social and political hubs."

Contreras and Orr posted a handful of campaign signs in front of Aut Bar several weeks ago in support of candidates like Washtenaw County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, 22nd Circuit Court judicial candidate Carol Kuhnke and U.S. Rep. John Dingell — all Democrats who support gay rights.

After learning from a friend about a state rule that prohibits candidate signs in businesses that serve alcohol, and after consulting with the Liquor Control Commission staff, the bar's owners removed the signs. The penalty for violating the rule ranges from a $300 fine to loss of a liquor license.

"We took them down because obviously we don't want to do anything to jeopardize the license in any way," Orr said.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU contends the state's rule violates the First Amendment by denying individuals who own businesses that sell alcohol their right to express their views about political candidates.

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

Orr said they're still unsure of the reasons for the rule even after speaking with the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.

"We have no idea what the compelling state interest would be," he said. "It makes no sense and there are so many absurdities about it."

The rule dates back to 1954 and states that a business owner with a liquor license cannot display signs in support of a political candidate or party, except when hosting a convention of delegates or during a fundraiser in which a special temporary license has been granted.

Contreras and Orr said Aut Bar was always intended to be a positive gathering place for the men and women of the gay community, their families and friends. They see supporting causes and political candidates that support the gay community as a central part of the bar's mission.

"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," Contreras said.

The ACLU pointed out the same restaurants and bars can 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 can post election signs.

Across the way from Aut Bar in Braun Court is a field office for Barack Obama. Sandi Smith and Linda Lombardini, owners of Trillium Real Estate, also have political signs up on their property nearby.

Contreras and Orr said they've been openly supporting political candidates, including posting signs outside Aut Bar, since they first opened.

"We were huge supporters of Lynn Rivers," Orr recalled, referring to the former politician who represented Ann Arbor in the Michigan House and then in Congress from 1993 to 2003.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 10:18 p.m.

A very odd law. I hope the ACLU gets this changed.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 7:53 p.m.

I can see it now... Highrise-sized posters of our beloved city mayor streaming down all of the downtown skyscrapers and most popular governor image adorning the other, well, not-so-tall buildings and, of course, the few pictures of lesser politicians in the windows of the Aut Bar just before election time - or maybe even after election until the next election. Viva la revolution!


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 5:55 p.m.

My vote is not for sale, nice to know where not to spend my money.

Some Guy in 734

Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 8:47 p.m.

^^^ What you said!

A2 Born n Raised

Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 7:11 p.m.

That's okay, BUBBA, I'll spend mine and make up for yours! Alex, I'm not gay, but I love the Aut Bar - best food, great drinks, fabulous location, and you are surrounded by groups of people who are equally enjoying themselves. I have appreciated their signs, as I am confident that they are interested in the same progressive future as I am. I have seen enough of the Romney/Fink signs lined up to know which direction NOT to take!!

Alex Swary

Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 6:53 p.m.

Well, I'm going to assume you're not gay. If you hadn't visited the local gay bar already, I think it's safe to assume you weren't going to spend your money there anyway...


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 5:07 p.m.

When progressive Aut customers are empowered to E-vote from their cell phone and/or laptop all of the signs within 200 feet will have to come back down anyway. Personally I would rather have more energy, trees, music, television, and telephone freedom than unsolicited political advertising. Google hates me too.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 4:10 p.m.

Let me understand this. Post Citizens United, Corporations can intimidate their employees to vote for the candidate of THEIR choice but ,two business owners paying taxes to operate their facility in a locality, can't place political signs outside their facility, if the business serves spirits? What type of sense does this make? Hope the Bar Owners are successful with the ACLU help to remove this out-dated state law.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 5:05 p.m.

You're creating a false dichotomy. This is a law that contradicts the First Ammendment and it will be overturned by the courts, which is what the owners of the bar are trying to do. The law existing has nothing to do with Citizens United. The Citizens United ruling gives these bar owners even more of a legal leg to stand on.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:30 p.m.

Whether it is a good law or a bad law, they have to follow it. The bar is pursuing the proper course by following the law, and attempting to change it.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:12 p.m.

I agree the law is invasive and doesn't make sense. The law doesn't even allow-or is interpreted as such-for bars, restaurants, and stores that sell liquor-to even put up on bulletin boards or windows, any political fundraiser signs. You only can for a non-profit, non-political person or event. And if you are having a political event at a bar/restaurant, you still cannot put up a sign announcing that the event will be held there.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:02 p.m.

Correct me if I am wrong, but at one point in time in this Country I believe voting took place at establishments that served liqour and beer. Kind of an odd law anyhow, people talk politics in bars, even with the owners sometimes.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 1:36 p.m.

If the Supreme Court found that corporations are people and preventing them from spending to support political matters violates their First Amendment rights, then I have a tough time understanding how preventing these signs doesn't also violate the First Amendment. However, I think the implications of allowing these signs should be evaluated. What about hateful signs that are not unlawful but shock our morality? If these are allowed, would those also have to be permitted? I just feel people often don't think about the unforeseen consequences of their actions. I personally think it's foolish to associate your business with political positions. Whether it's Chik-fil-a or Aut Bar, you just alienated around 50% of society. And if you say, "well, we didn't want the other 50% to come anyway," what about someone in that 50% with a business who doesn't want you to come to their business? Will you sing the same tune on that side of things?


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:03 p.m.

@ amlive - Oh I'm not saying that something that's bad for business should justify making it unlawful. I'm just saying my personal opinion is that it can be foolish - for example, the Chik-Fil-A situation. Even if I felt the way their CEO did, I never would have publicized it. And by your post, I suspect you would support a sign in favor of David Duke or Strom Thurmond (back in the day), being posted in a neo-nazi skinhead bar, nearby a kindergarten and Jewish temple. That's fine and that's my point. I agree with you 100%; just looking at the issue without focusing on the message.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 2:43 p.m.

First, ideological or hateful signs were never for restricted to begin with, nor do I think they could be. That's not what this is about though. The code they are challenging specifically forbids candidate endorsement signs. They can put up signs about proposals, millages, any ideals they wish, but just not supporting specific candidates in this case, which really makes no sense as a law. Second, I really don't get the arguments about it being foolish for business owners to openly voice their opinions. What does that have to do with tolerating a law limiting their constitutional rights to free speech should they decide to use it. Is it a bad idea for a gun store to put up signs endorsing a pro-gun rights candidate? It would probably help them if anything, but that's not even remotely the point to begin with. The issue is, should any regulatory agency have the right to tell that gun store owner that because of the field of business they are in, they have to surrender their right to free speech in context of the business they own if they want to be able to sell guns. That would be ludicrous, and it's just as absurd to enforce such code at a cocktail lounge because they sell liquor, or a gas station, or just about any other business. Who cares if you think it's bad business? In this case that's entirely wrong, because although they happen to sell alcohol, the very core of their business involves advocacy for the LGBT community, so this is kind of a cornerstone of thei very existence. That's not the point though. Even if it were bad for business, how does that seem to justify allowing a government agency to tell them they can't?


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 2:43 p.m.

Not to say they don't exist, but I don't know any gay republicans.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 12:55 p.m.

I hate to say it, but I think there is logic in the rule prohibiting liquor-licensed establishments from displaying political signs - the potential for bribery and conflicts of interest are certainly there. I'm assuming Common Language next door can display political advertisements, correct me if I'm wrong. On the other hand, with the recent Citizens United ruling, it appears any and all political speech by any entity is absolute and unlimited, so with that ruling in mind, this law ought to be struck down, and if it is not, I hope the Aut Bar continues to appeal.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:45 p.m.

Totally agree with you amlive. If buying votes is the concern, then it seems like it should be not be allowed for any and all businesses.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:34 p.m.

amlive - The more I think about it, the more I agree with you. This is just about displaying a sign at your place of business, it's not about campaign contributions or in-kind contributions - and I don't see how simply displaying a sign can lead to bribery or maniplation of politicians and liquor policy.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:02 p.m.

I will vote for whoever gives me the most free gas.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 2:03 p.m.

I tried to see that as possible justification in my mind too, but I just can't make it work out. The key point as I see it, is that something specific about alcohol sales would have to be demonstrated which sets it apart as notably distinct from other businesses which could justify such a limitation on owners' right to free speech. I just can't see how te distinction could be effectively argued compared to so many other types of business.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 12:47 p.m.

Putting up signs in Kerrytown supporting Democratic candidates is practically singing to the choir. If a single mind is changed, I'd be shocked.

Carrie Rheingans

Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 2:29 p.m.

Lots of people are set on the major, partisan candidates, but are looking for guidance on non-partisan candidates. Keith and Martin take their endorsing seriously and do a lot of research and meet candidates before they endorse, because they know they have many people who highly value their opinions. I think that's where they can make a big difference in this election. They sure swayed me in the primaries!


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 12:56 p.m.

I'd also be shocked if ANY sign anywhere changed someone's mind. Although I'm sure it happens all the time with the "low information" voters.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 12:43 p.m.

The reason behind the law is that bar owners had a history of buying votes with liquor


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 8:34 p.m.

That's funny, b/c currently the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers' Association and the MI Licensed Beverage Association do the exact same thing.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 4:35 p.m.

So a business owner could not "buy" a vote at Best Buy or at the bookstore next door? There is NO compelling reason that I should not be able to sell my vote. If Romney wanted to make me an offer, i would gladly consider it. It would cost him a lot more than it would Mr Obama. The entire system is based on people buying votes. There are lobbyists all throughout Lansing.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:44 p.m.

So why are business owners allowed to send letters to their employees threatening layoffs and increases in health insurance premiums if Obama wins? I'm not attacking you yohan, but just wondering about the logic here. It seems like any business should not be allowed to have any political signs. Maybe you're not going to buy my vote with alcohol, but instead cheeseburgers? Gasoline? Ammo?


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:09 p.m.

Thanks yohan. This at least gives an explanation of how it got to be a law. . But it's a bad law that should be removed.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 12:16 p.m.

Did judges and persons in political office used to have more influence on where liquor licenses went?


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 12:07 p.m.

I find it hard to believe when I see businesses with any political signs. By doing so, you are potentially alienating half of your potential customers. OK, with Ann Arbor, maybe you're alienating 2% of your potential customers.

Sandra Samons

Mon, Oct 22, 2012 : 7:11 p.m.

But shouldn't that be their right? If they are willing to risk loss of business because they believe in something strongly enough to place it above the dollar of the day, shouldn't they be commended for that, not penalized?


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 12:35 p.m.



Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 11:27 a.m.

Having a liquor license is NOT a right, anymore then having a driver's license is a "right". These are privileges granted under strict conditions that are set by the states for the protection of others. As such, they can & should be restricted and are not a constitutional issue. I support the AUT bar & Gay, Lesbian & Transgender community but they are picking the wrong fight here and trivializing serious constitutional issues as well as wasting Federal Court time! This is not about you rights to your beliefs, but you agreed to the conditions for a liquor license and now you want to back out?

Some Guy in 734

Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 8:42 p.m.

I have the privilege of carrying a driver license. And my car is registered with the state. But does that mean, by extension, that I can't have bumper stickers on my car that endorse a candidate? The state has no place doing that, and I fail to see how restricting political signs at any lawfully-operating business is any different. Martin, Keith... love you guys.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 4:37 p.m.

First, I'm not defending this as a good law on the part of Michigan to control whatever, having said that this is a STATE matter, left to the States and that is the Constitution also. Change the Local law, the Federal is out of this. The regulation was to keep politicians from "buying" votes via alcohol which was blatant abuse in the past. I don't care, I don't go to bars for politics anyway.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:41 p.m.

It seems to me that they are following the law. If they lose, they will continue to follow the law. But they should get their say. If corporations are people, then small businesses should be as well. This is a very odd law, and like others, I'd really like to hear the history behind not allowing this advertising.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 12:16 p.m.

You can't "consent" to something that is unconstitutional.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 11:39 a.m.

Didn't the replies in the last article answer that sufficiently? To repeat - Being a licensed contractor is not a right either. Nor is owning a restaurant, or an oil change station. Should the respective regulatory agencies have the right to prohibit candidate endorsement in a sole proprietor restaurant window, or prohibit candidate bumper stickers on an electrician's van? Would it be fair in relation to the First Amendment for the Secretary of State to prohibit candidate bumper stickers on cars for that matter? No, the fact that a particular market is regulated by an agency does not in and of itself give that agency special authority to prohibit the owners from exercising their constitutional rights, or at least not unless a harmful conflict can be proven in relation to that market. Contractors who bid on government jobs can put bumper stickers on their trucks. Gas station owners, stores that sell cigarettes and soda, gun dealers, pawn shops, investment advisors, I'm pretty sure that they could all put up candidate signs if they so wish. What is it then, that is so unique about a business that sells cocktails as to warrant such restrictions of the owners constitutional rights? I think the answer is quite clear that there is no reasonable distinction that could set them apart from any other business. Sounds like an open and shut case to me. This MLCC code is clearly overreaching, and very much in violation of the owners' First Amendment rights.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 10:56 a.m.

Silly law. It would be interesting to know why it was created in the first place though.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 8:33 p.m.

@Hume, but that activity is expressly still allowed under an exception to this rule. It seems in fact that bars can only have candidate signs in bars while they are having an event there, but have to take them down afterward. Gotta have been something else, but I can't make sense of what that would be.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 5:25 p.m.

It was created because in the past politicians would stump in bars and free drinks would be served, sometimes it would even happen on elections day.

Betsy Floks

Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 10:55 a.m.

Signed up to comment at just to speak to this issue. Its just preposterous that corporations are "people" and can buy elections and our neighborhood businesses can't support a candidate! Surely the first amendment isn't that complicated! Can't think of ridicule thats scathing enough to apply to this absurd prohibition of constitutional rights.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 10:50 a.m.

Our government should never infringe personal liberties without a very compelling reason. In this matter, there is no such compelling issue, so kudos to the Michigan ACLU and my friends Keith and Martin for taking this issue on!


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 4:31 p.m.

Smiley, If they did that, I would have the ability to stop patronizing that bar., I rather KNOW what the place I am going to believes and supports rather than being blind sided. I would also point out that this rule only applies to places that sell alcohol. So the book store that they own next door can put up ANY sign they want, but because they serve drinks next door they can not? Fails the First Amendment and Equal Protection clauses on their face.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 3:11 p.m.

It's no different, and it's actually a bad example as a poster below pointed out, because it's a policy issue and not a candidate endorsement. Of course that would be illegal; it's a figure of speech involving abortion, but I suspect you already knew that.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 2:59 p.m.

Smiley, how is that really different from the political ads that get posted on tv? They are always full of lies and extremes. Also, however delicious it might be, I do feel that turning dead fetus' into hamburger meat would be illegal.


Fri, Oct 19, 2012 : 2:02 p.m.

I agree with you, and I'm pro-choice. However, what if the sign said, "Liberals Turn Unborn Babies Into Hamburger. Vote YES on Proposal X"? I'm not saying that's an accurate statement, but I tried to choose something is not unlawful but is at the same time shocking. Would you support the establishment owner's right to post such a sign?