Street vendor fights D.C.'s attempt to license button sales

Frank Enten, 78, is suing the District in federal court because the city wants to require him to get a vending license and a permit to sell his merchandise at the intersection of 19th and K streets NW. Enten believes such restrictions are unconstitutional for someone selling political and historic buttons, but the District contends that Enten, like other street vendors, should be required to comply with D.C. regulations.
By Del Quentin Wilber
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Frank Enten loves selling political and historical buttons. He loves selling buttons so much that on a recent afternoon the 78-year-old ignored a cracked rib and stinging rain so he could hawk buttons on a D.C. street corner.

"Everybody needs a button," he yelled over the din of traffic while waving a hand over two canvas-covered boards festooned with Ronald Reagan buttons, Sarah Palin buttons, Bill Clinton buttons, Jimmy Carter buttons and one that said "Chinese for Nixon."

By the time he packed his boards into his car that afternoon, he had pocketed $20 in sales. But Enten didn't seem to mind the small sum. He was just happy to have spent the day selling his beloved buttons.

One thing Enten doesn't like so much: the D.C. government's demand that he obtain a vending license and site permit. Police have shooed him off countless street corners. He has been hauled away in handcuffs. And he keeps a wad of cash in a back pocket in case he needs to pay a fine quickly.

So, with the help of a pro bono lawyer, Enten says he's sticking up for his passion. He has filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to prevent authorities from arresting him or requiring him to get the license and to sell at a spot chosen by the city. The city has offered him a permit to sell at 13th and L streets NW.

Enten and his attorney, Andrew Tauber, say the city's restrictions are unconstitutional. They argue that the District's permitting system violates Enten's rights and that he should be allowed to sell his buttons anywhere he likes.

Selling political and historical buttons is a protected form of free speech, they say, no different than hawking newspapers or literature, for which no license or site permit is required in the District.

Attorneys for the District argue that Enten is no different from merchants selling hot dogs or T-shirts. The city needs to regulate how and where such items are sold, they say.

"He does not have the right to appropriate the use of public property for his own profit while refusing to comply with the very administrative regulations that ensure the safe and orderly conduct of commercial activity," Sarah A. Sulkowski, an assistant D.C. attorney general, wrote in court papers.

City officials are also concerned that other vendors might try to adopt Enten's reasoning, which would "reduce the downtown area to a state of chaos and bring the orderly conduct of commerce -- both on and off the sidewalk -- to a grinding halt," Sulkowski wrote.

A ruling that could temporarily block the city from regulating Enten is expected in the coming weeks from U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.

Enten awaits the decision eagerly but says he is surprised that his passion for buttons has ended up in a legal fight with city hall.

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