What You Need to Know

Right to Refuse Service: What You Need to Know

What You Need to KnowIn today’s highly partisan environment, there have been numerous stories reported in the media of merchants and restaurants refusing service to certain patrons. Leaving politics aside, if you own a store, restaurant, or other business, can you legally refuse service. Does the phrase “we reserve the right to refuse service” have any legitimate basis?

Situations you may want to control

The nature of your business may inform the rules you want to set. Consider such rules as:

  • Jackets required
  • No cell phones
  • No concealed weapons
  • Shoes and shirts required

Legal rules

You may be able to set certain rules for your customers on your premises, but be sure to distinguish between what’s legal and what’s not.

  • You can’t set discriminatory rules. The federal Civil Rights Act prohibits places of public accommodations (e.g., restaurants, stores, theaters, hotels, health clubs) from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a baker could refuse to make a cake that he believed would violate his religious beliefs, but the ruling was limited to the facts here involving a non-neutral decision from a state commission.) The Americans with Disabilities Act bars discrimination on the basis of a disability. A number of states also have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And D.C. and the city of Seattle bar discrimination based on political affiliation.
  • You can bar patrons in some situations. Whether or not you post “a right to refuse service” sign, you are within your rights to refuse service to patrons who enter just before closing or when you’re at full capacity. You can eject patrons who become unreasonably rowdy or cause trouble. You have a duty to provide a safe environment for all patrons, so anyone acting counter to this can be refused service and asked to leave.

Practical issues

Setting and enforcing some rules may be legal but can discourage people from patronizing your business. Even worse, some rules may trigger negative remarks on social media that can have a very deleterious effect. So the rules you set should be filtered through a marketing eye.

Bottom line

Look at the big picture before posting a “we reserve the right to serve” sign or setting any policy. Be sure what you’re doing is legal (consult an attorney if you have any concerns), and whether it’s advisable in today’s business environment.

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