As an attorney for the Liberty Justice Center, I fight for constitutional rights, including one that’s often overlooked but that’s just as fundamental as any other: the entrepreneur’s right to start a business and earn a living.
Working with entrepreneurs, I’ve seen that their lives are not easy. Even under the best of circumstances, there are so many difficult things they must constantly do: for example, figuring out what customers want, gathering and adapting to new information, improving their products, keeping costs down, and of course putting in the countless hours and intensive labor required to transform their dreams into reality. In a startup especially, they do all of this not knowing whether they’ll break even, let alone whether they’ll be able to pay themselves any salary.
And all of that’s before government enters the picture. Then things get even tougher, if not impossible. At every level, governments impose licensing requirements and other regulations that get in the way of people who are simply trying to deliver a product to consumers who want to buy it. And, often, those legal barriers don’t exist for any legitimate purpose, but instead are there only because politically connected established businesses lobbied for them.
Consider the story of our latest clients, Chicago natives Jim Nuccio and Gabriel Wiesen, the owners of Beavers Coffee & Donuts.
After college, facing a bad job market, Jim and Gabriel wanted to start their own business. At first, they wanted to open a pizza restaurant in Rogers Park, but they couldn’t get financing. So instead, they started a business with lower startup costs: They bought a food truck.
Jim and Gabriel’s business combines two of the country’s most popular culinary trends: gourmet food trucks and gourmet donuts. In less than a year, they’ve built an enthusiastic following: Wherever they go, people line up to get the coffee and donuts they make fresh every day on board their colorful vehicle.
Here’s a clip of Jim and Gabe sharing their story.
Their success, however, has been despite some local governments’ best efforts to keep them from operating at all.
In Evanston, for example, they’re completely barred from serving their would-be customers. That’s because the Evanston City Code only allows owners or agents of existing brick-and- mortar restaurants to operate food trucks there. Everyone else is excluded.
That rule obviously exists for just one reason: to ensure that Evanston’s restaurants don’t have to concern themselves with competition from food trucks. It doesn’t have anything to do with protecting the public’s health or safety – that’s covered in other provisions of Evanston’s food- truck ordinance. In fact, Evanston officials don’t even pretend that the rule has any other purpose.
This sort of scheme isn’t just unfair – it’s also unconstitutional. It violates the Illinois Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process of law because it treats two groups of people – those who own restaurants and those who don’t – differently for no valid reason. That’s why we’ve sued the City of Evanston on behalf of Jim, Gabriel, and Beavers Donuts to have it struck down.
The constitution doesn’t prohibit all regulation of business, of course; it’s permissible if it’s sincerely designed to serve the public’s health, safety or welfare. When a law that infringes on someone’s right to earn a living doesn’t serve one of those purposes, however, the courts must strike it down.
The Illinois Supreme Court has made that clear in decisions spanning more than a century. For example, in the early 20th century, it struck down a Chicago ordinance that attempted to exclude department stores to protect traditional retailers. Decades later, it struck down a state law that barred workers from processing metal springs in their home to protect the owners of factories that processed springs. And it has struck down numerous laws intended to protect established players other businesses – such as funeral directors, plumbers, and security-system installers – from competition.
With our case on behalf of Beavers Donuts, the Liberty Justice Center hopes not only to end Evanston’s protectionist scheme, but also to remind lawmakers across Illinois that the constitution limits their ability to bestow favors on special-interest groups. And, most of all, we hope it’s a first step toward making Illinois a state where entrepreneurs are free to pursue their dreams without arbitrary interference – where their success turns on their ability to please consumers, not on their membership in a politically privileged special-interest group.