By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Arizona's Supreme Court,
stepping into a zoning dispute over a tattoo parlor, ruled on
Friday that tattooing was a constitutionally protected form of
free speech, the first such decision by any state high court in
the country, lawyers said.
The ruling stemmed from a dispute between tattoo artists
Ryan and Laetitia Coleman and the Phoenix valley city of Mesa,
which denied the pair a business permit three years ago to set
up shop in a local strip mall.
The Colemans, an American-French couple who live and work in
the French city of Nice, originally applied to Mesa in July 2008
for a business permit, and city zoning staff recommended it be
issued to them the following February.
After a public hearing, the board voted to recommend the
council deny the permit, arguing the shop was "not appropriate
for the location or in the best interest of the neighborhood,"
according to court documents.
The Colemans filed a lawsuit in 2009 alleging violations to
their rights to free speech, due process and equal protection
under both the U.S. and state constitutions. The suit was
dismissed by the Maricopa County Superior Court.
"Recognizing that tattooing involves constitutionally
protected speech, we hold that the superior court erred by
dismissing the complaint as a matter of law," the state Supreme
Court said in its ruling.
The ruling does not mean that Mesa must allow the Colemans
to open their tattoo parlor, only that the court erred in
dismissing their suit. It noted that cities had the right to
regulate business location through zoning ordinances and that
the "factual dispute" between the parties would have to be
determined at trial.
The Colemans have sought a ruling allowing them to open
their parlor and want compensation for business lost over the
past three years.
"It is very significant ... Tattoo artists are often
subjected to enormous regulation, especially in terms of
operating their businesses," their attorney, Clint Bolick, told
"As a result we now know that in Arizona, tattoo artists
will be able to ply their trade free from excessive regulation,"
The question of whether tattooing is protected speech had
been litigated in other U.S. states with mixed outcomes, Bolick
said, adding the Arizona decision was the first by a state
Supreme Court to affirm it was protected speech.
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