I'm curious where this comes from, is it written law somewhere? Where is this right defined?

It's normally written as "we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" in restaurants or other businesses and it's known to be a legal statement unless the entity is discriminating guests.

In which countries (I guess mostly USA) does it even apply?

  • 8
    Not discriminating, but illegally discriminating. A restaurant refusing to serve drunk guests is legally discriminating.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 16:57

4 Answers 4


Well right off the bat, let me say that the signs are legally irrelevant. Restaurants that do or do not have the signs have the same rights, regardless of whether they telegraph that to their costumers. As an analogy, homes without "No Trespassing" signs have just as much right to call the cops on trespassers. The main purpose of the signs is not to reserve any rights, but to give owners something to point to when unruly customers don't want to leave.

In the United States, very few rights are explicitly laid out and protected. So if you're asking if there's a specific law or statute saying "Businesses can deny customers," the answer is that it doesn't exist. Basically, the "right" to refuse customers exists for the same reason that the right to smoke cigarettes exists: because there are no laws against doing so. I guess if you want to get philosophical, the right to refuse service is an extension of the restaurant's right to property, and its right to control that property. A restaurant that is legally required to sell its products away doesn't "own" its products or facilities in any meaningful way.

But like smoking cigarettes, the right to refuse service in the United States is not absolute and can be infringed upon by legislatures with good reason. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids public accommodations such as restaurants from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Later federal legislation added protections for disability, age, pregnancy, and veteran status. Additional protected classes vary by state. In particular, many states add sexuality or gender identity to the list, and California's proscription of discrimination based on "personal attributes" covers basically anything a clever attorney can dream of.

How much of this applies in other countries, I'm not sure. But I'm skeptical that there would be a country where businesses are legally required to seat even unruly customers.

  • 5
    As I understand it, no trespassing signs are do have a function at least in some jurisdictions. If someone trespasses on unposted land, the person can only be removed. If the land is posted, a tresspasser can be penalized.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 25, 2016 at 3:24
  • The second link goes to an "access denied" page. If this is still available for you, please include the relevant part in the answer. Thanks.
    – Alexei
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 11:26
  • Does it count as "discrimination" if a perspective customer is refused service for cause? In your example of an unruly customer, refusing service would be "for cause" rather than in order to discriminate.
    – wrod
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 20:21
  • @phoog: It doesn't work like that, however most trespass laws are written such that a reasonable person should understand that they are trespassing. Signage is used when it may be unclear where the property line is, however, if you let someone know they are on your property, ask them to leave, and they refuse, they can be charged with trespassing. A fence without a trespassing sign is just as effective a notice of trespass as a sign is.
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 21:12
  • @wrod, No. It's only discrimination if your motivation to refuse service is motivated by discrimination of a protected class of people as outlined under the relevant anti-discrimination laws. It should be pointed out that discrimination is perceived or otherwise, meaning if you discriminate against Australians and you refuse to sell your fruit to someone because of their accent that you identify as as an Aussie accent, you are legally not off the hook because they're actually a New Zealander.
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 21:19

If X does not have a right to refuse to serve Y, that would imply that Y can legitimately compel X to provide service. In the absence of a particular reason why Y should be legitimately able to compel the service of X, the "right to refuse service" would thus exist as default and doesn't need to "come from" anywhere.

  • 4
    Not the most clearly written answer, but it is absolutely correct. The right of the shopkeeper to be free from compulsion is the issue. Commented Dec 31, 2016 at 0:52

To complete TenthJustice's excellent answer, let me say that in other (liberal democratic) countries, things may be different. In France, which tends to have many more laws regulating many more aspects of life, it is forbidden for a restaurant or any professional selling goods or service to refuse to sell the good or perform the service to any customer. The law says:

Il est interdit de refuser à un consommateur la vente d'un produit ou la prestation d'un service (article L. 121-11 du code de la consommation)

that is

It is forbidden to refuse the selling of a product or of a service to a consumer.

If you do that you risk a fine of Euro 1500 personally, and your entreprise a fine of Euro 7500. When it is determined that the race, religion, etc. of the consumer was the reason of the refusal, sanctions may be heavier.

  • 3
    You are really not selling me on opening a business in France. Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 22:30
  • Is there some kind of burden of proof on choosing not to serve a customer? (e.g. for arbitrary reasons, like refusing to serve anyone who's order of appearing into the shop is a prime number.)
    – bobsburner
    Commented Feb 4, 2020 at 16:12
  • It would have been more honest to include the full article 121-11: "Est interdit le fait de refuser à un consommateur la vente d'un produit ou la prestation d'un service, sauf motif légitime", which translate as: "It is forbidden to refuse the selling of a product or of a service to a consumer, except for legitimate reason". Jurisprudences have already identified several cases where you could legally refuse to sell. A few example here (in french though)
    – Hoki
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 15:39

That message was conceived after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Prior, Jim Crow openly permitted discrimination, allowing for "whites only" signs to be posted and legally enforced. In Colorado, such signs are illegal because they have historically been used for discriminating (see last 2 pages).

  • 1
    Jim Crow laws did not merely permit racial discrimination. In some cases the discrimination was mandated by law. The 1890 statute at issue in Plessy v. Ferguson mandated separate train cars for white and colored (mixed race as well as black) passengers.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Sep 10, 2020 at 16:55

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