This week I discovered that I am also a little protective of it, maybe even somewhat selfish with it. I discovered this feeling when one of our reporters wrote an update on the case of artist Steven White versus the City of Sparks. My initial reaction to the case was disgust at what I thought was a bastardization of the protections of the First Amendment, but upon further review I have discovered that White had a legitimate case. Now, however, he needs to get out of the courtroom and back in the artist’s studio.
The basics are this: White set up in Victorian Square to sell his original paintings and the city told him he needed a permit. In the process it turned out that Sparks had an exception to the permit rule for artists like White. This exception involved bringing the art before a committee which would determine if the art was protected free speech. If so, the artist could sell it in parks and other public areas without a permit.
White and his lawyer challenged this process as being inherently biased and potentially leading to “prior restraint” on free speech. According to city attorney Tom Riley, the committee was given a specific framework for making its determinations. Using dictionary definitions, it was supposed to determine whether a piece of art expressed an “explicit” or “implicit but obvious” religious, ideological, political, or philosophical message. If so, no business license needed. If not, pay up and you can sell ‘til to your heart’s content.
So what was White’s message? If I didn’t know any better, I’d just say his paintings are of animals and lanscapes.
Riley described White’s position saying that his artwork conveys his belief that mankind is pushing animals (or “brethren”) into extinction. Using slightly different wording, White’s lawyer said the same thing.
Maybe that’s what made me mad in the first place. I felt like all other news people and I who try to do some good with our words and pictures were being lumped into the same category with some hack selling paintings that belong next to T-shirts with wolves or deer on them in cheesy western gift shops. You know, the sort of artwork you expect to see when you walk in but would never actually buy.
I spoke to White’s lawyer, Terri Keyser-Cooper, and though I still think White is an over-zealous crusader who ought to spend more time with his own species, he had a legitimate gripe against Sparks’ exemption process. The city’s intent in allowing for the exemption was noble, but any first-year journalism student could have told them that White’s painting would qualify as protected speech, even if his message is a little zany.
The U.S. Supreme Court said that “a narrow, succinctly articulable message is not a condition of constitutional protection, which if confined to expressions conveying a particularized message would never reach the unquestionably shielded painting of Jackson Pollock, music of Arnold Schöenberg, or Jabberwocky verse of Lewis Carroll.” I have always liked the saying, attributed to Volatire, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I guess in this case I don’t disapprove of what White says, but I will defend to the death my right roll my eyes at it.
It would have been nice if the city had tried to censor White’s work because then I could be on his side unconditionally. At the same time I wish the city had been a little smarter with its First Amendment law and not given White a case he could win. Considering the current state of government budgets, it would have been better to forget the exemption and make all artists pay $10 to hawk their wares on public land. White might not have had a case and the city might not have to raise sewer rates to fix old plumbing.
Unfortunately, it now seems that White and his lawyer plan to seek out other jurisdictions where they can file more lawsuits. It would have been one thing if White fought his battle here in Sparks and went along his merry way painting and talking to the buffalo, but that’s apparently not enough. I’d advise any city attorneys who are considering doing any favors to small-time artists to reconsider them now.
When I first heard about this case, I figured White was just some bum who wanted to weasel his way out of paying for a business license. If the Sparks Tribune — a newspaper! — enjoys First Amendment protection and still has to pay several thousand dollars each year to the city a business license, what makes this wandering artist so special? He may not be such a weasel, but the only thing that makes him special is that he was smart enough to hire a good lawyer.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see if White’s lawyer is available to help the Tribune get out of paying for its business licenses.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.