“We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
Whether printed on a sign, taped in a window, or tucked next to an asterisk on a restaurant menu, this phrase continues to be one of the most prolific ones in the bar and restaurant industry. Intended to protect owners and staff from rowdy, rude, or inappropriate customers, this phrase isn’t a useless mantra. It’s a legal warning.
But when is it okay to deny service to someone?
And when does it become a civil rights issue?
The signs themselves are completely legal—but their scope is limited. Despite being private property, restaurants still accommodate the public and are thus subject to constitutional laws. So while your local bar is more than justified in bouncing…
- Rowdy or dangerous customers
- Customers that may overfill capacity if served
- Customers that try to elbow in just before closing time
- Customers who are excessively dirty, unkempt, or unhygienic
- Non-paying groups accompanying a customer
…they cannot refuse service on the basis of race, color, religion, or natural origin. Similarly, an establishment cannot refuse service because of an extremely arbitrary condition. For example, the local pub couldn’t bar someone from entering because she or he has a speech impediment.
If you’re a business owner, make sure to check with a constitutional law attorney before you start kicking people out. You can learn more about your right to refuse service and establish refusal-of-service guidelines that are legally appropriate for your place of business. Don’t get caught up in a discrimination suit because you weren’t playing with a full deck of cards—get familiar with business law.
If you have a specific question about business law, check our Business Law Forum for helpful advice, contacts, and info.
By Kate Beall