Governments require permits or licenses for a wide variety of undertakings—everything from building a home to starting a business to buying a gun. Being free means not having to ask for permission, yet today America is slowly turning from a free society into a “permission first” society where our freedoms are regarded as privileges the government grants us.

While these rules can sometimes be a good way to protect public safety, they can also cause unnecessary delays, restrict opportunity, and empower government officials to exploit people who need permits by demanding payoffs in exchange. That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court has said that when the government requires a person to get a permit to do something he or she has a constitutional right to do, the government must also ensure that three basic procedural safeguards are followed: (1) Clear criteria for whether the permit will be granted or denied—no vague standards like “good cause”; 
(2) An explicit deadline for when the government will decide whether to grant or deny the permit; and (3) A meaningful day in court for those who think the government wrongly denied the permit.

Unfortunately, too many permit requirements lack these protections. The criteria for obtaining a permit are phrased in ambiguous language, and the applicant is given no specific timeframe for when he or she will get an answer. And because without a formal determination there can be no appeal, many cities have started to “deny by delay,” holding up applicants in endless bureaucratic red tape, effectively killing projects or business startups. Permits should not exist as tools to achieve policy ends nor serve to protect governments. Rather, permits exist to ensure the safety of other residents before people undertake a constitutionally protected act. A great example is a driver’s license. Because car accidents are common and often deadly, it makes sense to take preventative measures beforehand. Additionally, the rules to obtain a driver’s license are clear and objective and upon passing an exam, a license is received that day with no show of favoritism.

The Permit Freedom Act

The Permit Freedom Act gives real meaning to these protections laid out by the Supreme Court. It requires all permits to be clear and unambiguous, and requires local governments to approve or deny permits in a set timetable. Local governments can still deny permits, but they must do so in a timely fashion.

For more information visit the Beacon Center of Tennessee.