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Victory! Honolulu Agrees to Suspend Enforcement of Unconstitutional Ordinance, Saving Local Businesses
By Selected News Articles @ 11:50 PM :: 2575 Views :: Honolulu County, First Amendment, Small Business, Tourism

Victory! Honolulu Agrees to Suspend Enforcement of Unconstitutional Ordinance, Saving Local Businesses

by Matthew Prensky, Institute for Justice, March 22, 2024

ARLINGTON, Va.—Yesterday, officials with the city of Honolulu’s Department of Planning agreed to stop enforcing an unconstitutional city ordinance that banned local businesses from displaying a small, portable sign to attract customers. In doing so, restaurants such as Honolulu’s EbiNomi will be able to continue serving the community and avoid having to shut down. 

Brothers Stewart and Andy Chung opened EbiNomi in 2020. For approximately three years, the restaurant used a small, portable A-frame menu board, placed on private property near the sidewalk, to attract customers to the business. The brothers relied on the sign because the restaurant isn’t easily visible from the street. However, last September, a Honolulu city inspector warned the restaurant to remove the portable sign, stating it violated the city’s sign code, which allows individuals like realtors, politicians, and event planners to use portable signs—but not restaurants. Inspectors sent out notices of violation for similar signs placed by other businesses.  

On behalf of Stewart and Andy, the Institute for Justice (IJ) sent a letter to Honolulu officials last month warning them that the sign code provision was unconstitutional. The city’s ordinance didn’t just deprive Stewart and Andy of their constitutional right to advertise their award-winning restaurant; it threatened to drive EbiNomi and several other restaurants out of business. Thankfully, in a meeting with IJ this week, city planning officials agreed to suspend enforcement of the sign code while the city worked to amend the ordinance, thus allowing EbiNomi and others to avoid reaching their breaking point.   

As a result, both EbiNomi and other businesses can place one portable sign on private property, as long as they have the property owner’s permission, and the sign doesn’t pose any safety problems. IJ will continue to work with Honolulu officials on amending the sign code. 

“Honolulu officials took an important first step for local businesses and the First Amendment,” said IJ Attorney Daniel Nelson. “Because Honolulu officials have promptly suspended enforcement of the portable-sign ban, EbiNomi and other businesses on the brink now will be able to stay open. Indeed, EbiNomi already is seeing a surge in sales through its portable menu sign.”   

IJ has a long history of fighting to protect Americans’ right to free speech by challenging unconstitutional sign code restrictions. In addition to this situation, IJ has several other victories in this field, including victories in Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and Washington.

IJ is a public interest law firm. We represent clients free of charge in cutting-edge litigation defending vital constitutional rights. You can join us by supporting our work here: ij.org/support

KHON: Local businesses saved from ‘unconstitutional ordinance’

KITV: Hidden restaurants in Waikiki almost shut down due to "no sign" code

  *   *   *   *   *

Public Interest Law Firm Urges Honolulu to Change Sign Regulations to Save Businesses, Protect Free Speech Rights

by Matthew Prensky, Institute for Justice, February 26, 2024

ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) sent a letter to city officials in Honolulu, Hawaii, calling on them to change a city ordinance that’s driving several popular restaurants in Honolulu’s Waikiki District out of business. 

One of those restaurants is EbiNomi, which was opened by Stewart Chung and his brother Andy. The brothers opened the restaurant just before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. The restaurant’s comfort-style cuisine helped it survive the pandemic, but EbiNomi is now weeks away from closing due to a city ban on portable signs. Since opening, Stewart has relied on a small A-frame sign (also known as a menu board sign) to help guide customers to his restaurant, which is tucked away in a private courtyard, nearly invisible to pedestrians from the street.  

However, last September a city inspector told Stewart he could no longer use his sign because Honolulu bans certain businesses from using portable signs, even if they’re on private property near sidewalks. Under Honolulu’s regulations, restaurants such as Stewart’s can’t use portable signs, but realtors, politicians, and others can. Stewart’s restaurant and others in the Waikiki District need signs to help customers find their businesses. Without those signs, sales at Stewart’s restaurant and others have plummeted, causing many to approach their breaking point. 

“My brother and I put everything into this restaurant,” said EbiNomi owner Stewart Chung. “We hoped this would help us retire and are proud to have a staff of 15. But now we’re on the brink of closing for good.” 

The Institute for Justice (IJ) stands with Stewart and the Waikiki District’s other businesses who are not only being pushed to the brink but are also having their constitutional rights violated. In a letter to Honolulu city leaders, IJ warned that Honolulu’s ban is almost certainly unconstitutional. Under the First Amendment, the government can’t censor an individual’s message because of its content. Allowing some types of businesses to use portable signs, but not restaurants, is unconstitutional censorship and discriminatory. Therefore, IJ urged city leaders to repeal the ban to allow Stewart and others to place small signs on private property near sidewalks. 

“Honolulu’s sign ban is putting hard-working local restaurants out of business,” said IJ Attorney Daniel Nelson. “The government doesn’t have the right to pick and choose what messages it allows. The Constitution protects every American’s right to free speech, and Honolulu must respect that.”  

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