The True Story of Leonard Carlo’s Bar

See Updates Below!

I showed a friend the story below from the 3 October 1999 issue, and she found it way too hard to believe.

I, of course, bet it was indeed true, and to prove it I drove down to Colorado Springs (about two hours south of me). As you will see, the story really is true.

No, Not “Firetruck”

Leonard Carlo likes a particular word, and it’s reflected in the decor of his Colorado Springs, Colo., bar. “F—ing Women” says the sign on the ladies room; “F—ing Men” it says on the opposite door. Another sign notes, “No f—ing tap or draw beer”. A state liquor enforcement agent, noting a state regulation prohibiting profanity in bars, confiscated 29 signs. “The mother f—er came in like a German storm trooper,” Carlo said. “He walked in my door and started ripping signs off my f—ing walls.” The agent, however, left up Carlo’s posting of the Ten Commandments and the U.S. Constitution. Carlo’s liquor license is in danger of suspension, and he is suing, saying his free speech rights have been violated (“If you walk in and see ‘f—‘ and you don’t like it, get the f— out. There’s 700 bars in town,” he says.) Meanwhile, Carlo has had a message tattooed on his bald head which reads, “F— U. Leave me the f— alone.” He challenged the agent, “Now, mother f—–, take that one!” (Denver Post) …They will if they can.

Randy at Leonard's Bar
And here’s the “proof” — this is me at the alley entrance to Leonard’s II Bar in Colorado Springs on 6 October 1999, in front of one of the few signs that the state liquor control agent didn’t tear down.

7 July 2000 Update

The Denver Post reports “Leonard Carlo is f—— happy.” In a settlement, the state has dropped all charges against him and has returned his signs in return for his dropping his civil rights lawsuit.

While the “no profanity in bars” rule is still on the books, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue, which oversees liquor enforcement, says that liquor agents will not enforce it.

Carlo had faced revocation of his liquor license, and was supported in his action against the state by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It’s a victory not only for me but for everyone,” Carlo said. “We protected the First Amendment, so I’m happy about it, but I’m not gloating over it.”

The ACLU attorney notes “The Constitution does not permit government inspectors to monitor private businesses to ensure that the owners express themselves in accordance with government-approved standards of good taste.” After all, a bar is hardly a place where children would come in contact with the language. And any adults who don’t like it can find another place they prefer.

The First Amendment is there exactly for language or ideas people don’t want to hear. We would hardly need such a clear and firm guarantee in our Constitution for speech that everyone liked and agreed with, so of course it’s there only for language we don’t agree with! Whether or not you like what Carlo has to say, he has a fundamental right to say it. If you don’t agree, you don’t deserve to be able to say what you think, either!

June 2002 Update

In October 2000, after a “three-month investigation,” Carlo was arrested for allegedly dealing cocaine from his bar. In a June 2002 plea bargain, about 20 other charges against him were dismissed, including racketeering, cocaine distribution, illegal weapons possession, and witness intimidation and retaliation.

Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Bain said the charges wouldn’t stick — because evidence was suppressed over improper searching by police. The main informant against Carlo had felony convictions, which would undermine his credibility, Bain said, and several of Carlo’s employees admitted they were doing the drug dealing without Carlo knowing.

To settle the remaining charges, Carlo pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and was sentenced to two years of probation. “Everybody lied,” Carlo said after sentencing. The informant “lied, the detective lied and the DA lied.”

Thomas Ward, Carlo’s attorney, said Carlo was a small-time cocaine user, not a big-time drug distributor. After 50 years in business in Colorado Springs, Ward said, Carlo lost his business, his wife, and his house over the charges, saying the police targeted his client over his notoriety with the “f—ing” signs.

“In the course of our investigation, everyone almost laughed at the suggestion that Mr. Carlo was selling drugs,” Ward said.

It’s hard to decide the truth, but frankly Ward’s charges are plausible. You can fight city hall, but they might cheat to win.

The True Story of Leonard Carlo's Bar

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41 Comments on “The True Story of Leonard Carlo’s Bar

  1. Freedom of speech to protect our access to the words and truths and opinions we do NOT like or want to hear.

    That is sharp like a razor. Thank You.

  2. I really don’t like the “F” bomb in casual conversation, but I do agree with Mr. Carlo– if you don’t like my language — go somewhere else. Kudos to him for not rolling over!! Too bad he paid the ultimate price– beaten by bureaucracy.

  3. This country is filled with people assuming they have the right to the protections that our Constitution provides. I think one problem is that news sources are regulating our morals. Most medium to larger geographical areas now have only one major newspaper, and if they say jump, we don’t ask how high. Now, people have the other great resource, the Internet. The Bill of Rights aught not to be trifled with. For any matter.

  4. Obviously anyone is free to say whatever they want to say. The problem is that profanity is often used abusively, to intimidate someone with the implication that lack of politeness equates to lack of patience or tolerance. Granted, this is usually true. It is for that reason that statutes prohibit such language in courts, or toward law enforcement officials. His signs were just a written way to demonstrate his unwillingness to be ‘politically correct’, or in fact to accommodate any reasonable request. As for his prosecution, I am reminded of the adage “you should never get in a p*ssing contest with a fire hose”.

  5. As usual ALL those in power go overboard with their authority. Power plays are the rule of the day in any governmental agency. I do NOT advocate anarchy. Our governmental agency’s have gotten away from the idea that WE the people are their BOSS and not their servant. there are no checks and balances for actions taken by any law enforcement agent. This is the path that Hitler took.

  6. Of course, “fuck” is not profanity, profaning the sacred. It is, I guess, obscenity. I’m amazed that people can’t differentiate between profaning the sacred and just talking shit.

    While the definition of the word certainly started that way, it has grown to include “Vulgar, coarse” too. -rc

  7. For Don’s information, one is NOT “…free to say whatever they want to say.”

    That’s a dangerous road. It’s why we have slander laws and harassment laws and so on and on. You may have an imagined “right” to say anything, but sometimes you can be bitten by your own language.

    And, Lenny, it’s not just the lack of competing newspapers. It’s the television “news” broadcasters, too. I have only four regularly scheduled sources for national news on my cable connection. Between that and the newspaper shortage it kind of narrows the choice of the American public to make unslanted choices.

    I think the best we can do is try to follow what we believe our founding fathers wanted.

  8. I think something rather fundamental is being overlooked here: Yes, the U.S. constitution does guarantee freedom of speech, but surely that only pertains to *what* a person says, not *how* they say it. Should a community not be able to stipulate how a person expresses their opinions (within the bounds of reason, of course)?

    I don’t want to seem like some high-handed moralist here – hey, I’ve used the “offending word” myself on many occasions and will probably continue to do so, though I try to do so with discretion – but it was not necessary for Mr. Carlo to use it in this case, as it appears to have no constructive purpose.

    To use his own argument against him: There are thousands of other towns in the country. If he doesn’t agree with the policies in that one he’s free to move somewhere else. Hey, he could even run for office and try to change them!

    I’m not sure it should be up to the city (or you) to decide whether one’s speech is “necessary” or has “constructive purpose” or not. Are you seriously arguing otherwise? -rc

  9. James – It is *what* he was saying that was prohibited. He was not prohibited from saying “Clean ladies room” or “Stinky mens room” but “fucking mens room” was off-limits. It was the word that was prohibited. What if the word “communism” was blocked from bars? Or, “Obama”? You see, it is not the ‘how’, it is the ‘what’.

    The US Supreme Court says the Constitution permits “time, place and manner” regulations with respect to public speech – a car can’t go down your road blaring a message over loudspeakers at 2 am, for instance. This is the ‘how’ that you are talking about. Such regulations prohibit a type of speech (in this case, excessively loud speech in the middle of the night) whether it is a pro-candidate political speech (which receives the highest protections, generally), information regarding local movie times (commercial speech), or constant swearing. As long as the regulation does not distinguish based on content, the regulation is more often permissible.

  10. I’m not so sure something that is written constitutes ‘speech’ – any ideas about that? Nor am I very concerned that someone chooses to incorporate the word ‘fuck’ in their own establishment… I guess I agree with the concept that if you don’t like the way the place is, you are free to go somewhere else. Actually, I guess I’m tired of the the double standard that what you ‘say’ is more significant than what you ‘do’ – this guy harms no one with his signage.

    The clause in question is that there may be no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” — and “freedom of speech” tends to be shorthand for “freedom of expression”. The signs aren’t exactly “speech” and not exactly “press”, but they are expression, and the interpretation of the right is that such expression is protected. -rc

  11. Incredible! Are these comments here coming from AMERICANS??? If I hung a sign from my house, for all to see when they come home from work, for all their visitors to see, then there may be an issue of community standard. In other words, I’m FORCING my freedom of speech upon you. But the bar owner had walls. He forced his speech on no one. Those who were offended were free to leave, and immediately be shielded from such offense.

    After losing the lawsuit about the signs, the government then went about shutting him down by other actions that they were not previously concerned about. Had they been unable to convict him of that, their next step would have been to burn down the bar and charge him with arson.

    It’s not about proving who’s right, but proving who REALLY has the power. After 10,000 years of human social and political evolution, Might still makes Right. Even in America, when the Little Guy seems to win, you’ll find that there was a Champion behind him that supplied the Might.

    America differs from the rest of the world in that it, at least, ASPIRES to the concept of individual liberty. It’s stories like these that demonstrate otherwise.

  12. In the early 1960’s, there was Lenny Bruce. He had gotten a name for himself by using profanity. Wherever he performed, it was just a matter of time before the police would show up and arrest him. I should also mention he was a drug addict? After his death, his mother wrote a book to tell why Lenny used that sort of language. She responded by saying that any “word” could be profane based on its usage. I was in high school when this happened, and I mentioned this in a class. One young lady asked me to prove that statement. She asked that I utter the word “it” in a profane manner. I turned to her and asked if she “wanted to do IT”? The class roared, but the point was made.

  13. As a freedom-loving American I’m embarrassed by this story.

    Certainly we’re better off than the gentleman from Singapore who commented … and I hope he suffers no ill repercussions from his comment … but we’re supposed to be better than this. Political freedom DEPENDS on freedom of speech.

    Recently, our local civic leaders came up with a public/private boondoggle they were unwise enough to call the South Lake Union Trolly. A local coffee shop promptly came up with a T-shirt: “Ride the S.L.U.T.”

    One can imagine how tempting it may have been for the outraged Leaders to try sort of legal action, or perhaps send an inspector to the coffee shop (you can ALWAYS find a code violation if you look hard enough), but wisdom prevailed. Everyone got their say, and a good laugh besides.

  14. The government is getting too F*&^%#ing big for its britches. Soon they will be breaking down the door of your house because they suspect you of having kinky sex with your adult partner!!! Who died and made them God?

    Now that it’s out that you’re having kinky sex with your partner, you can expect your door to be busted down any minute. -rc

  15. Maureen, the government does break down doors when they suspect you of “kinky” sex. The most recent significant case was in Texas last year when Texas CPS raided a whole community based on a “tip” from an unreliable informant. They took custody of over 400 kids, including a few adults who they thought were kids (don’t bother showing a drivers license, birth certificate, passport marriage license etc, it might be forged!). Google “Yearning for Zion Ranch” or FLDS for more details. Kinky in this case meaning that they believed that spice was the plural of spouse. Oh, and that they believed that those pesky laws about 14 or 15 being underage did not apply to spouses. Nevermind that a good portion of the couples that headed west in the 1800’s were underage by todays definitions. As best I can tell, 99 percent of those detained have been released as the charges were dismissed!

    Now, you said “Soon they will be breaking down the door of your house because they suspect you of having kinky sex with your adult partner!!!”. Whose definition of “kinky sex” are we going to use? Oh, wait! They can use whatever definition they want. See for a few examples of what NOT to do.

  16. Here in Italy, the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is suing the newspapers (that is, the ones he doesn’t own) for ASKING him 10 questions about his government and the sex scandal with young girls. Since his lawsuit is against the Italian constitution, his party introduced an amendment to the constitution to allow his lawsuit. There were HUGE demonstrations all over the country in support of the journalists and for freedom of the press on Saturday (Oct.3).

  17. I like to protect something as important as freedom of expression and if the price of protecting real freedom of expression is protecting this low life’s right to express himself on his own (though with public access) property, deliberately profane and obnoxious man as he wallows in less-than-mediocrity…well if that is the price I suppose it should be paid.

    But I’d feel better if at least expression that has some real value, some element that advanced societies or individual’s freedoms within society, or even outside societal norms, was what was being protected.

    But this particular “freedom of expression” is nothing more than empty verbiage (or “noun”age depending on how you use it!). I think it can be easily presumed to draw a particular type of clientele to his bar. The freedom of expression argument here is the equivalent of philosophical junk food, empty calories to feed the spirit of freedom while accomplishing nothing but philosophical diarrhea in the end.

    I’m with you on your first paragraph. He does sound like a lowlife jerk, but that’s where I stop; it’s not up to us to decide for him whether his choice of language was serving his business, or hurting it. -rc

  18. There’s a saying that gos like this: “i don’t agree with nothing that you say, but i will defend with my life your right to say it”…that’s what freedom of speech is. But at the same time we must fight morally the use of bad language. Education reflects our life more than we imagine. Language should be free, but it also should reflect a moral superiority.

    Moral pressure from other citizens sounds good. They can boycott the bar, even picket it. But it should not be up to the police or other government agents to decide what is “moral”. -rc

  19. Well, darn it, I thought the photo was going to be of the tattoo on his head!

    I wish I had one! (And before anyone sends one, I’ll specify “One that I can publish without violating someone’s copyright.”) -rc

  20. Mike – You may be glad to know that you CAN hang that sign from your front doorstep! Community standards don’t trump the Constitution (except in some cases where speech deemed ‘obscene’ doesn’t get Constitutional protection). So, you can hang a sign outside your door that says “Al Franken is a f*@king bad joke!” or “Glenn Beck is a motherf*&@ing Nazi!” or even “F___ the troops!” if any of these are your thing, and your government can’t do a thing about it!

    Randy is right, of course, that your NEIGHBORS don’t have the same restrictions – they can put up other signs, protest your house, try to get the news to cover the ‘story’ of your sign(s) in order to put pressure on you to remove them, etc. Heck, if they are willing to break the law and accept the consequences, they can destroy your sign, burn down your house, whatever they want… Community standards only really enters the picture when determining to what lengths your community will go when it doesn’t like your point of view.

    Why stop with burning down the house? You could also stalk the neighbor down at his church and shoot him to death in front of others. But wouldn’t it be nice if we all just understood and fought to preserve free speech instead, not “even if” we disagree, but especially when we do! -rc

  21. Good for Mr. Carlo, he represents the spirit of America; shame on Colorado Springs – it represents why we needed a revolution (among other reasons). And 3 cheers for Randy C, for keeping up the good fight.

  22. In my native country, Denmark, a priest and spiritual leader more than a 160 years ago formed the adage: Freedom for Loke as for Thor.

    Our first constitution from 1849 guarantees the freedom of speech although it somewhat restrained by the added “under responsibility of the law”. Another paragraph concerns the freedom of print and guarantees that no form of censorship can ever be tolerated (which until about 40 years ago didn’t amend to movies though).

    These two rights have recently been under attack and the aggressor was our military high command. A former special forces member had written a “book” about his adventures, which the military at first had no objections towards. When copies where sent to literature critics the high command got cold feet. The commander in chief then sent a letter to the editors of the leading newspapers asking them to “kill” the book in silence and tried to get a court to prohibit the book from being published. One newspaper editor (violating copyright laws) answered by printing the whole book in his paper. And the court rejected the plea from the army.

    Two days ago the commander in chief was forced to resign.

    Apparently he had achieved his high position without ever understanding the constitution it was his job to defend.

    May he serve as a lesson to all. -rc

  23. Another great example from the courts recently that tests one’s resolve for the 1st amendment — the dismissal of the civil case against the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting a GI’s funeral with it’s “God Hates Fags” signs.

    WBC was acquitted, the court ruling that what they did was “speech” and thus protected. A classic example of “I don’t agree with what you say …” but I agree that it’s not up to the government or the courts to decide what people can say.

  24. I object to the language used in the signage personally, though not because it may be deemed ‘objectionable’ – and I by no means endorse the actions of the state in trying to close it down; Freedom of Speech is the right that all freedom flows from; change begins with a single citizen, but it stops there if that citizen is not free to share their thoughts.

    No, my objection is the dilution of the language. When an emphatic is used recklessly, it loses its strength; when it’s used as carelessly as in the bar in the story, it no longer means a f*#$ing thing.

  25. I believe in personal censorship–if you don’t like certain language, don’t use it, and avoid others who do. I agree with Carlo; if people didn’t like his signs, they were welcome to go to one of the other bars in town instead. I think he was crazy to have the head tattoo, but it’s not my head, so I don’t get to choose. (Nor would I want that responsibility.) It was reprehensible of law enforcement to use his signs as an excuse to railroad him out of business.

  26. This reminds me of a sign my late father had in his electronics (radio, CB, TV, Satellite) repair shop for over 30 years:
    First Curse – FREE.
    Motherfucker – $25
    SOB – $15
    Asshole – $20
    Shit – $5
    Bullshit – FREE.

    And he would religiously apply these to customers bills who dared to curse him out. They could pay or he would sell the item repaired for the bill.

    I can remember one instance where I was 11 and listened to a man cussing my dad out while he was totaling a bill for a TV repair where the picture tube had to be replaced and he had already told the man the tube would cost $190 plus labor. My dad was calm and quietly added each curse to the bill, even giving him the first word free as per the sign.

    The gentleman, then proceeded to say he would sue, and my dad just laughed and replied, “Go ahead, I really would enjoy watching you explain why I put that on the bill.” Cause my dad had itemized the bill with each word beside the amount. The man thought about a minute then relented and paid so he could have his TV.

    My dad strongly supported free speech but like he said, that didn’t mean he had to do business with people who cursed him out. Those who didn’t like the man’s signs in the bar should have just turned around and taken their dollars elsewhere.

  27. I am also a believer in right to free speech, but not when it includes vulgarity used in public. For example, I was in a Walmart recently and a big, arrogant looking kid about 25 years old had on a shirt that read “Shut up, F**king B*tch”. That’s over the top. Young people go to Walmart, too. Children shouldn’t be subjected to that kind of vulgarity, nor should grandmothers. As far as posting the F word in a bar, I think the man has a right to do that because people who frequent a bar are likely to have heard or even used that word before.

  28. I am hardly a prude, and pepper my own language quite a bit. That said, I would be put off by signs such as the ones in the bar. It really isn’t necessary to be so in-your-face about it. And I clean up my own language when the setting makes doing so appropriate (such as in chatting with my aged Mother).

    But all THAT said — you’re right: the First Amendment is there for a darned good reason. I remember going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans decades ago and seeing some nut dressed in a German WWII uniform. He was standing on the concrete base of a street light, and utterly silent. There was a hostile crowd (understandably) surrounding him — but a dozen or so New Orleans police officers had him ringed, protecting him. I was an ROTC cadet in uniform, which sort of gave me a way to approach one of the officers, which I did. I complimented him for his and his colleagues’ cool in a potentially hot situation. (I had been a cop too, so had that sort of empathy.) He told me, rather hotly, that he hated the guy — but it was his, the officer’s, sworn duty to protect the guy’s right to make a “statement” of sorts. And the cop was right.

    When I was a cop, my oath to protect and serve did not exclude anyone. Nor did it come with an expiration date; I consider myself honor-bound to this day to defend another person’s right to free speech, no matter how hateful it may be to me personally. And no, I’m no hero or big shot, just a guy who believed in my oath. Like most cops (and military personnel) do.

    It’s more than an oath, it’s adherence to an ideal, which is what the Constitution represents. -rc

  29. I dunno, I think it’s kind of amusing, seeing a sign like that in a bar. I’d likely get a chuckle out of it. I’m a former Marine, so I’ve heard it all before although I try not to use it, but I would get a kick out of it. I certainly did about the photo on the page.

  30. This is what I don’t get:

    -Children hearing the F word: horrible.
    -Children seeing a woman’s breast: unthinkable.
    -Children watching people be maimed and killed: acceptable, especially if it’s bloodless.

    You know what? It’s just a word. Saying it is only a form of rudeness. Even if you ran around a school shouting it every five seconds, who would get hurt by that? Other than you, when you got tackled and Tasered for it, I mean. The kids (who have all learned the F word by the end of first grade) would think it was really funny, especially the part where you got beaten up and dragged away by the police. But what would hurt the kids more, having heard the F word or having seen that what the good guys do is beat people up?

  31. I have to admit to being a little confused. I have spent the last few hours perusing this site. In a recent comment to this story a reader said “When I was a cop, my oath to protect and serve did not exclude anyone. Nor did it come with an expiration date; I consider myself honor-bound to this day to defend another person’s right to free speech, no matter how hateful it may be to me personally. And no, I’m no hero or big shot, just a guy who believed in my oath. Like most cops (and military personnel) do.”

    To which you commented:

    It’s more than an oath, it’s adherence to an ideal, which is what the Constitution represents. -rc

    In another series of postings ( it was made clear that “the fact that [the police] are not required to help and cannot be sued if they DON’T help. California’s Government Code, Sections 821, 845, and 846 states, in part: “Neither a public entity or a public employee [may be sued] for failure to provide adequate police protection or service, failure to prevent the commission of crimes and failure to apprehend criminals.”

    As a Canadian who makes occasional trips into your country I would appreciate some clarification. Am I to understand that the police take an oath to protect and defend but are not bound to that oath legally or by honor? If that is the case then what is the purpose of that oath?

    You’re comparing apples to oranges. A police officer’s “oath” — if a particular state has one — comes into play when that officer witnesses a problem taking place. Witnessing something, and having the ability to do something about it, creates a duty to act. If they are not there, and do not witness a problem, there is no duty to act. The cited California law — which is also on the books in most/all other states — makes it clear that the police don’t have a duty to respond to calls for help. Only if they do respond, and witness problems, does the duty come in. Thus, if there are no officers available when a call comes in, they cannot be liable for not responding, which at least sounds reasonable. I would imagine there are similar laws on the books in Canada. -rc

  32. I’d never patronize his bar (saith this “one glass of wine a month” Libertarian) — but I’m happy to have people like that living with me here in Colorado Springs. There are people living here with all kinds of different views (from extremely conservative to incredibly liberal), and the smart ones learn to find commonalities so we get along.

    As long as it’s not on I-25 during rush hour, that is…

    Isn’t it great you have a choice? Yet there are some who would insist that it’s proper for the government to take that choice away from you. Not my kind of place either, but we don’t need “freedom of speech” rules to protect speech we agree with, eh? -rc

  33. A couple of sayings I’ve heard that are similar in intent to the “fire hose” comment:

    Don’t get in a fight with a pissing skunk.
    Don’t get in a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

    You’re going to lose either way.

  34. Someone said that children in public should not be subjected to “that kind” of vulgarity. I am so tired of hearing that pathetic premise. As a parent, you have the right to protect your child from such an environment, if you choose. That does NOT extend to requiring the entire environment, through law, to provide an antiseptic, non-offensive, thought-safe bubble for your child to wander freely in. If the environment bothers you, then avoid it. When I go to Walmart, I will not remove my black leather vest that, among others, holds a patch that reads, “Fuck y’all, I’m from Texas!” And, yes, I’ve raised 4 kids of my own to productive adulthood.

    I’m just trying to fathom a parent trying to protect their children from that environment, yet they see no irony over the fact that to truly be exposed to it in this case, they have to let their kids hang around in a bar. -rc

  35. I just don’t get why you want to shut anyone up. Wouldn’t it just make sense to hear what they have to say for the sake of seeing how far the bubble is off level?

    And what is a bar for besides letting down your hair? They aren’t my recreational choice but I don’t want to shut them down so that nobody else can indulge. Vote with your feet and your dollars. Not the DA’s office.

  36. Too know him is to love him. My husband and I met Leonard by happenstance when we stopped by his place for Karaoke. We were new to Colorado Springs and came upon his place while venturing. When we left out of his bar, somebody broke our windshield on our vehicle and that is when we met the man, Mr. Leonard Carlo. He was livid because he knew that this incident gave us a bad impression of his bar. That incident made us the best of friends. I loved him and miss him.

    R.I.P F****** Leonard.


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