Groups say proposed yard art ordinance violates freedom of speech

by: Rachel Stockman Updated:

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ATLANTA, Ga. - Some groups say a proposed city ordinance that regulates art on private property will violate their freedom of speech rights and curbs artistic expression.
 

“It presents a lot of bureaucratic hurdles, we have to get permission from all sorts of different offices,” said Bennett Bryan, a board member with Living Walls, a nonprofit organization that supports artists who create murals throughout the city.  
 
“It will discourage artists from wanting to come to Atlanta to do public art,” Bryan told Channel 2’s Rachel Stockman.
 
Atlanta City Council Member Joyce Sheperd said the proposed city law simply streamlines an application process for the installation of art in a public right of way, updating a 1982 law already on the books. The proposed ordinance regulates art on private property that can be seen from the sidewalk or the street.
 
“It has taken us one year to write this legislation because as we wrote it, we wanted to make sure we did everything correct,” Sheperd said, “All we are doing is making a process better, but we are not changing anything that is not already on the book on every level,” Sheperd said.
 
According to Sheperd, the proposed ordinance would require the applicant to provide the following: property address where public art will be located, site plan, artists’ statement describing proposed artwork, photograph or detailed graphic of proposed artwork, notarized statement signed by all property owners, resume of artist and neighborhood review.
 
Certification of the artwork would also be required from the Director of the Office Cultural Affairs, the Executive Director of the Urban Design Commission and the Bureau of Traffic and Transportation.
 
Final approval of the artwork will lie with the Atlanta City Council, according to Sheperd’s email to her constituents.
 
“It is basically saying to folks you can’t have art on your own property unless the city approves of it, through a convoluted approval process,” said Gerry Weber, a constitutional attorney. “I think it is going to be found to be unconstitutional if it passes.”
 
The law was sparked by controversy surrounding a mural on University Avenue back in 2012 that depicted snakes, which some claimed were demonic.
 
Sheperd said the city later discovered that the mural was on the state’s property and needed to be removed.  Another concern with public art is safety, according to Sheperd.
 
“Whatever you are putting up can’t cause a traffic problem, when you are driving down the street,” Sheperd said.
 
“I think the city would have a hard time pointing to a single case that a person drove off the road because of a mural that was too distracting,” Weber said. “I see a whole lot of red flags, I teach First Amendment law, and this is really a First Amendment law exam question for my students.”
 
However, Sheperd maintains the city law department vetted the bill thoroughly to make sure it was consistent with federal, state and local law.
 
“The improved six-step process is designed to replace an outdated system that too often left artists confused on the requirements needed for installation of public art,” Sheperd wrote in a letter to her constituents.
 
The Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs plans to have an information session on the new legislation in early April, according to a constituent email.