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Elgin car wash sign: Lewd or just lingo?
By Harry Hitzeman | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/6/2008 12:08 AM

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Some newer car washes are "touchless."

At others, a towel crew cleans the vehicle "by hand."

An Elgin car wash owner has landed in hot water over a message on her sidewalk marquee that said they do the best work in town for the latter category.

Rosie Martinez, front office manager at the Elgin Car Wash, 313 Dundee Ave., said the phrase is widely accepted lingo in the car wash industry.

"You can Google it. You'll see T-shirts, you'll see signs," Martinez said.

Car wash owner Judith Colletti said an Elgin code enforcement officer visited Monday and asked her to take it down.

"People laugh about it. They think it's a joke," she said. "In this economy, the way things are today, you have to think outside the box. It's a play on words. It was never meant to insult anybody."

Colletti at first refused to change the sign. Then, at the end of the business day on Tuesday, she did - according to her routine for the past nine years. She said it had nothing to do with the city.

Elgin spokeswoman Susan Olafson said Colletti's message did not break any laws, but the city received several complaints from residents.

"We merely suggested she reconsider her language," Olafson said. "We fully support her First Amendment rights, but there's a greater issue here. Is this the language that can be used to best promote her car wash? She's using a double entendre that could leave a negative impression of her business and the city."

Poor taste or not, First Amendment experts believe Colletti's message is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

"What a great ad," said Don Craven, general counsel for the Illinois Press Association in Springfield.

Craven said Colletti's marquee is considered commercial speech, which has less protection than free speech. However, he said, Colletti's marquee describes her business and its services.

"From a First Amendment perspective, I think she's OK," Craven said.

David Hudson, scholar at the Nashville-based First Amendment Center, agreed.

"That is protected speech. Commercial speech, particularly since the mid-1990s, is entitled to a fair amount of protection under the First Amendment," Hudson said. "There's nothing obscene about that at all. They ought to lighten up and have a sense of humor. In my mind it's a gross overreaction."

Colletti, whose car wash has been in a family business since 1962, says she's a solid citizen not looking for trouble.

In 1989, she was recognized by then-Elgin Police Chief Charles Gruber for "extraordinary effort" in organizing the Elgin chapter of Mothers Against Gangs and earned "Distinguished Service Commendation" for helping rescue a child from a creek on Jan. 20, 1992.

Colletti doesn't believe the city is picking on her; but she will consider the phrase again.

"It's part of my car wash lingo. I'm considering putting it on shirts (for my employees)," she said. "My sign is my sign, and we still live in America."