Writers Fight Home Business Law
The Writers Guild of America West filed a federal lawsuit Monday that challenges the constitutionality of a new Los Angeles city ordinance that would require writers working at home to register with the city and pay a business tax.
The new law, known as the Home Occupation Ordinance, went into effect in March, after being introduced more than a decade ago. It was conceived as a zoning ordinance, spearheaded by Los Angeles City Councilwoman Laura Chick, which would make it legal to work from home in a residential area.
The ordinance requires that all writers working in their homes register with the city and pay a $25 annual fee for a permit. Additionally, writers are required to pay a business tax, an obscure requirement that has actually been on the books, but not enforced, since the 1920s.
Many writers, journalists and artists have been lobbying for an exemption from the law for several months, citing a similar law in the city of West Hollywood that exempts writers.
The Writers Guild suit is asking that writers be exempted from the ordinance, arguing that the requirement violates the 1st Amendment by interfering with the creative process and also opens the possibility of intrusion of privacy and possible harassment if city officials were to conduct inspections.
“It brings to mind a nightmare of things that have happened behind the Iron Curtain and are happening now in oppressive regimes,” said Gary Bostwick, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, at a press conference at the Writers Guild of America West headquarters in Los Angeles. “It reminds one of [George Orwell’s] ‘1984.’ It gives the city tremendous powers to come into your home, inspect your records and look at your writing, your hard disk, to see if you work in the city of L.A. You’re going to have to tell people how you work, who you work for, what your ideas are, etc. And if they happen not to like your content, they could refuse you a permit.”
However, a city official told The Times in a telephone interview that there would be no home inspections examining the content of a writer’s work.
“There’s really no discretion in the ordinance for city officials to approve or deny a permit based on content or anything else,” said Ken Bernstein, planning deputy for Councilwoman Chick. “It’s a self-reporting ordinance. If you assert that you meet the standards, then the city will issue you a permit. . . . We’ve offered to the Writers Guild to work with them to assure that the liberalization of the home-based businesses law doesn’t result in any intrusive inspection or anything that could be considered intrusive or Orwellian. There’s some misinformation out there that the city would look at the content of writing. That is not possible at all.”
Among other complaints addressed at the conference was the lack of clarity in the law about who is covered under the home occupation ordinance. Would people who earn little or no money from their writing be required to register for a permit and pay taxes as well as successful writers? Others charged that the tax formula is murky and byzantine.
“There is no way in this business tax ordinance to tell exactly what category you fall into,” Bostwick said. “The mere fact of the idea of auditing has a chilling effect on free speech.”
A similar home occupation law has been put into effect in about 80 other cities in Los Angeles County, according to Bernstein, and around the country.