Dec 4, 2012

Student note on using the first amendment to protect uncommissioned graffiti

Some art by Ack! here in Houston, now painted over
Margaret Mettler, a JD candidate at Michigan Law has posted her student note on SSRN: Graffiti Museum: A First Amendment Argument for Protecting Uncommissioned Art on Private Property, 111 Michigan Law Review 249 (2012). From the abstract:

Graffiti has long been a target of municipal legislation that aims to preserve property values, public safety, and aesthetic integrity in the community. Not only are graffitists at risk of criminal prosecution but property owners are subject to civil and criminal penalties for harboring graffiti on their land. Since the 1990s, most U.S. cities have promulgated graffiti abatement ordinances that require private property owners to remove graffiti from their land, often at their own expense. These ordinances define graffiti broadly to include essentially any surface marking applied without advance authorization from the property owner. Meanwhile, graffiti has risen in prominence as a legitimate art form, beginning in the 1960s and most recently with the contributions of street artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Some property owners may find themselves fortuitous recipients of “graffiti” they deem art and want to preserve in spite of graffiti abatement ordinances and sign regulations requiring the work’s removal. This Note argues that private property owners who wish to preserve uncommissioned art on their land can challenge these laws under the First Amendment, claiming that, as applied, regulations requiring removal are unconstitutional because they leave the property owner insufficient alternative channels for expression.

An interesting paper. As the value of graffiti increases, the law must catch up to help landowners who want to hold on to it. An idea which runs counter to the municipal ordinances which want to clean it up. The idea of who owns something that has value, but has no owner challenges a lot of the our underlying assumptions about property.


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