Muftic: The art of free speech meets Fraser sign code and results in a lawsuit
Local governments and municipal code enforcers across Colorado must have taken a second look at their sign code regulations lately.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the town of Fraser in July claiming the town “silenced clients simply because it does not approve of what they have to say or the way in which they choose to say it … The Constitution (state and U.S.) does not allow this kind of government censorship of expression. The town’s sign code is a content-based regulation of speech that violates the First Amendment.”
Aside from the free speech and due process issues, the age-old question is: What is art? That will not be resolved by this suit, but art has been a vehicle for political protest throughout history. Per the July 25 report in the Sky-Hi News, the town is reviewing the matter.
I cannot predict how the suit will be resolved, but I assume it is connected with Fraser’s goal of turning this old logging town into an art center, therefore giving preference to content that is “art.”
At issue per the ACLU is that Fraser’s sign code exempts art from adhering to physical restrictions such as size, numbers and placement, in effect exempting one kind of content but not exempting other content like political expression. The ACLU also contends Fraser’s ordinance was written so vaguely that those governed could not understand how to comply, depriving them of their right of due process.
The issue arose when Fraser residents erected signs on their property within the town criticizing Donald Trump and climate change policies that exceeded the size and other physical restrictions on non-art signs. The residents tried to make their signs more artistic looking in order to comply but still were told they were subject to penalties and fines.
Throughout history, art has been used as a form of political protest. In fact, in recent times, one work of art has been credited with ending a civil war. Completed in 1937, Pablo Picasso’s stunning “Guernica,” an 11- by 25-foot painting of disjointed figures in stark black, white, gray and blue cubism, depicted the terror and horrifying results of a Nazi bombing of innocent civilians in Basque, Spain.
Picasso was commissioned to paint the subject by the anti-fascist forces fighting the Spanish Civil War. Of course, the bombing in Spain was only the precursor to modern warfare and the widespread death and destruction of innocent civilians in World War II.
Nonetheless, it has also been taken as an anti-war message. One does not have to be a Picasso to paint what we would consider “art.”
I wonder what would happen if I displayed a full-size replica of Guernica with a caption: “Stop selling weapons to the Saudis who use them to kill innocent civilians in Yemen.”
To put the shoe on the other foot, what would happen if a neighbor erected a very large sign replicating the Andy Warhol-type pop art style with multiple MAGA hats in the place of Campbell Soup cans and captions exhorting support for Trump? It is a hypothetical question: My home borders the town of Fraser, but I am in unincorporated Grand County so the question would not arise from Fraser authorities. The town of Fraser has opened a can of worms.
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