Avon business owner fights ban on waving signs

Liberty Tax Service uses employees in costume to attract business.
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A central Indiana town is cracking down on "sidewalk Statues of Liberty" and other human billboards trying to get you into their business.

In Avon, the issue of freedom of speech versus public safety has led to a lawsuit.

"I get a lot of smiles and a lot of waves and a lot of honks," said Faith Jennings, dressed in a Statue of Liberty costume, as she stood along US 36 and Dan Jones Road in Avon. "We get a lot of business from waving."

Jennings says she's spends several hours at a time outside Liberty Tax Service where she works. Tuesday afternoon, she was waving to passing drivers, some who honked at her.

This tax season, though, Liberty Tax Service has also gotten its share of fines from the Town of Avon that's cost them $250.

"They say anything that moves is not allowed in the Town of Avon," explained Liberty Tax Service Owner Vic Ruthig as a reason for the fines.

Ruthig was referencing Avon's ordinance which prohibits moving signs.

"We want to have them just here at the edge of the parking lot," said Ruthig, showing an area several feet back from the road where his employees have stood and waved.

Ruthig owns five Liberty Tax locations. Two of them are in Avon. Until last year, Ruthig used costumed employees to advertise outside all of them.

"They're American icons. Everybody's gotta file taxes," he said of his choice to use Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam costumes. "It's good for business. I mean, we're a small business and, you know, we don't have the advertising dollars that some of our competitors do and this is the way we kind of attract attention is by street marketing."

Ruthig said Avon never had a problem with his waving employees until last year, when they told him he couldn't use them any longer.

Ruthig appealed to the town's board of zoning appeals, hoping for a variance to the moving sign ban. He lost his appeal last October. Since then, he said he's waved goodbye to business, without his waving employees.

"Over half the people that come to Liberty Tax say they saw our costume wavers and that's why they come in," said Ruthig.

Ruthig has filed a lawsuit against the town.

Avon town officials said the ban on moving signs is really a safety issue. They've cited police reports from 2012, showing 38 crashes at the intersection of Dan Jones Road and US 36, just hundreds of feet away from Liberty Tax, where Ruthig would have Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam standing to wave.

"We've had a person dressed up as a mattress. We've had a person as a hot dog and then we also had a person as a Spiderman during the Halloween City times," said Avon Town Manager Tom Klein, who added Ruthig has not been the only business owner in violation of the moving sign ban.

"Same thing. People dancing around, along the sidewalk or in the parking lot trying to grab attention," said Klein. "We've had to tell 'em, 'You can't, you can't do that'," he added. "The goal is to make sure we prohibit signs that distract drivers."

Ruthig said he doesn't see his waving employees as a distraction.

"We're not in anybody's way," added Jennings.

Ruthig has called what his employees have done "protected speech," even if they were communicating with just a wave and a smile.

A court date to hear the lawsuit has been set for April 1. Ruthig said he'd like to come to an agreement with the town before then, so he can get his waving employees back out there, welcoming customers to his business.

Officials with the Town of Avon said they could not comment on the specifics of the pending lawsuit.