West Hollywood's Fur Ban: Is it Unlawful?

Though banned in WeHo, fur at this L.A. boutique is readily available.
Though banned in WeHo, fur at this L.A. boutique is readily available.
Reily T. Bates

The West Hollywood City Council banned the sale of fur the other week to worldwide headlines, and now the politically correct city is feeling the backlash. Animal rights activists cooed over the new ordinance, but the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and retailers are enraged, with some merchants talking about leaving the city and other groups talking about lawsuits.

"If we're to tell corporate that we were no longer able to sell fur," says a manager of a Sunset Plaza boutique, who wishes to remain anonymous due to targeted harassment from anti-fur advocates, "they would for sure close the store and open elsewhere."

LA Weekly spoke with law professors who say that fur ban opponents could indeed make a case against West Hollywood.

Jonathan Zasloff, professor of law at UCLA, tells us of two possible claims. Pre-emption is one argument. If the state or federal government have already legislated on the issue -- such as the Fur Products Labeling Act -- that could forbid local ordinances on the same issue.

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Another possibility, explains Zasloff, is that unless the city determines the ordinance is exempt from environmental review or has no environmental effect, opponents of the ban could demonstrate that it goes against the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), making a fair argument that there would be a significant environmental impact.

It seems only a matter of time that West Hollywood will end up in court. West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President Genevieve Morrill, in the Los Angeles Times, proclaimed the ban "not only unconstitutional, but arbitrary."

Fur Information Council of America (FICA) director Keith Kaplan says his fur advocacy organization is "exploring a number of legal options."

While experts are unsure if the ban is truly unconstitutional, they do agree that the ban would need a rational basis to enact it into law. If West Hollywood doesn't give a legitimate reason for the ban -- or why it's in the city's interest -- it could be easily challenged by the chamber or FICA.

Kaplan is peeved at West Hollywood's ban-happy politicians, who include John D'Amico, John Duran, John Heilamn, Abbe Land and Jeffrey Prang.

Kaplan told local NBC news anchor Colleen Williams recently: "This was done without any due diligence, any vetting of the retail community, and any democratic process whatsoever."

Kaplan even brought up the fact that Ugg boots -- a favorite of the fashion impaired -- will be banned in West Hollywood. The new ordinance prohibits the sale of pelt-attached fur, hair and wool, although it does not apply to leather.

West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce's Morrill is livid. "We are dismayed that a city who has worked so tirelessly to create a district that attracts high-end fashion retailers, would abandon its business constituents without due diligence," says Morrill in a press release, adding "the very stakeholders that make this city thrive economically have been ignored without as much as a survey."

But we have to wonder about the chamber's political handling of the fur ban.

The chamber and fur-friendly retailers didn't seem to learn anything from bar and club owners who successfully watered down an outdoor smoking ban earlier this year by involving themselves in a smoking ban task force. Bar and club owners worked the system for months -- basically getting their way in the end.

Yet the chamber and retailers refused to take part in a fur ban ad-hoc committee, which would seemingly have been retailer's best shot at blocking it.

The intentional absence from the committee leaves us wondering if the chamber was encouraged by lawyers to stay away from the committee. We don't know for sure because Morrill wouldn't get back to L.A. Weekly for comment.

As a cultural and fashion destination, it's shocking that the West Hollywood City Council -- John D'Amico, John Heilman, Abbe Land, John Duran and Jeffrey Prang -- passed a ban that will inevitably hurt the already struggling luxury goods market.

Store owners and managers, who consistently sell fur and wool garments, are frustrated, since business was just picking up again and clients were coming back to shop.

"Banning fur from our city would not solve the problem," says the Sunset Plaza shopkeeper, who has been directly threatened by those involved in the city's anti-fur movement. "If someone wants fur, they will travel and spend the money elsewhere in other cities. It will also hit the city in tax revenue."

The campaign to get the ban passed was initiated by the group Fur Free WeHo, whose biggest ally is the city's newest councilman: John D'Amico.

This political team surprised many since during his 2011 campaign for office D'Amico was staunchly opposed to the proposed citywide ban on smoking and advocated that the city had no business making such decisions for the citizens.

Yet D'Amico has been incredibly focused on getting the fur ban passed. So much so, says Morrill, that the economic impact study released by FICA was completely ignored by the city council.

Headquartered in West Hollywood, FICA is a non-profit that works to protect the interests of retailers and promote manufacturing of the fur industry.

Kaplan also told NBC's Colleen Williams that at least three retailers have contacted their landlords to get out of the leases and out of West Hollywood.

On its website, FICA writes that "extremist animal rights groups have stepped up their attacks on the fur industry" around the country. Retailers have experienced the same thing in West Hollywood.

"I have dealt with protesters who have come and protested our store," says the store manager who wishes to remain anonymous "even when we don't have fur present. They bully and do not educate on the subject."

One protester even went as far as to threaten one of his employees, saying: "For your own sake, that better be faux."

At the September 20 seven-hour city council meeting, when the ban was unanimously passed, anti-fur advocates were a loud and visible presence. Kaplan says that retailers were afraid to show up at the meeting and speak out in fear of retribution.

The city council will meet again in a couple weeks intending to finalize the ban, which will include details of when it will go into effect and what the penalties for violators are.

But if the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, FICA, or others take legal action, whether or not the ban goes into full effect will probably be decided by the courts.

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