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Brooklyn tattoo artists may soon find their ink protected under the First Amendment

In a recent Arizona case, Coleman v. City of Mesa, the state’s Supreme Court held that tattoos are protected free speech under the First Amendment. In March 2009, the City of Mesa turned down Angel Tattoo’s request to build a tattoo parlor after city residents complained that the tattoo parlor was incompatible with the area.  Instead of merely ruling on the issue of building permits and zoning regulations, the court emerged with a more significant decision.

The finding that tattoos and tattoo parlors are protected free speech did not come as a shock to Joel Gora, constitutional law professor at Brooklyn Law School. Professor Gora told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that he is not surprised to learn that the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that tattoos are protected free speech under the First Amendment.  

“The [United States] Supreme Court has recognized all manner of entertainment and visual communication as expressive activities, including art, film, music, dancing, dancing, parades and burning flags, ” says Gora.    

The Coleman case may be the beginning in the expansion of the types of expression protected under the First Amendment. As Professor Gora notes, tattoos are becoming increasingly popular and as a result, the Arizona “ruling will give support to those who contend that government officials seeking to regulate tattoo parlors and the like will have to do so in the kind of careful and focused manner required when constitutional rights are implicated.”

By ruling that tattoos and tattoo parlors are protected free speech, the Arizona Supreme Court severely limits the ability for such tattoo parlors to be regulated by the government. When a conduct or expression is deemed pure speech, as is the case here, only reasonable restrictions can be placed on such expression.

In other words, the City of Mesa must have compelling reasons to impose restrictions on tattoo parlors. Mere complaints from city residents may not be compelling enough.  A lower court in Arizona will rehear the case, and unless the City of Mesa has a compelling reason to deny Angel Tattoo its building permit, another tattoo parlor will set-up shop in Mesa.

September 13, 2012 - 12:30pm


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