Are tattoos a form of protected speech?
November 16, 2015
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
Tattoos have become as ubiquitous as dyed hair and trendy clothes, but are they a form of protected speech?
That was one of the questions in the case of Coleman v. City of Mesa, which was decided in September 2012 by the Arizona Supreme Court.
In July 2008, Ryan and Laetitia Coleman requested a permit to open a tattoo parlor in Mesa, Ariz. The city denied the permit in March 2009, saying that the shop was “not appropriate for the location or in the best interest of the neighborhood,” according to court documents. The couple disagreed with the ruling so they sued, arguing that the denial was a violation of their First Amendment free speech right in the U.S. Constitution and the free-speech provision in the Arizona Constitution.
Their lawsuit was rejected by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Larry Grant, who said the city’s decision was “a reasonable and rational regulation of land use.” The case eventually made its way to the state Supreme Court.
The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…” In this case, “Congress” can be interpreted as the City of Mesa government.
The case looked at whether the process of injecting ink into the dermis of skin is “purely expressive activity,” meaning that the act of tattooing is a form of expression, or if the action is “conduct with an expressive component,” meaning that it has some type of expression but it is not at the core of the process.
The Arizona court ruled unanimously that tattoos and tattooing are forms of free speech. It said that tattoos, which contain words, messages and art, “may be purely decorative or serve religious, political, or social purposes.” It reinstated the Colemans’ lawsuit, which was returned for trial in a lower court. The Arizona justices based their decision partly on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach, which said tattoos, the process of tattooing, and the business of tattooing are “forms of pure expression fully protected by the First Amendment.” In the lower court trial, the Colemans’ First Amendment rights will be weighed against the government’s right to regulate businesses.
But this case doesn’t mean that the First Amendment protects the act of tattooing everywhere. In the South Carolina Supreme Court case State v. White (2002), the court ruled that “the process of injecting dye to create the tattoo is not sufficiently communicative to warrant protections.”
What do you think?
Are tattoos or the act of tattooing a protected form of expression? By nature, is expression the central component of the act of tattooing, or is it merely a small part of the action? Did the Arizona Supreme Court make the right decision, or do you side with the South Carolina Supreme Court? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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