Nancy Nemhauser and her husband Lubomir Jastrzebski live in Mount Dora, Florida, a small artsy community known for its annual art festival. Last summer, in an effort to brighten their home for their adult autistic son, the couple commissioned a local artist to paint a wall outside their home in the style of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”
The couple thought nothing of it, as city officials told them no permit was required. A month later, however, the city cited the couple for “graffiti,” and having erected an illegal “sign.” Nancy immediately removed the sign, but was told the mural was considered graffiti because the wall did not match the color of the house.
Nancy and Lubomir responded by adding a mural in the same style to the house behind the wall. The city, in turn, escalated its enforcement with a creative interpretation to its vague sign code and branded both murals as illegal “signs.”
The First Amendment requires government to have a powerful, clearly articulated justification to regulate artistic expression. In addition, all regulations must have clear standards for everyone, and be procedurally fair. In the case of Nancy and Lubomir, government bureaucrats enforced a vague rule based on their own aesthetic whims to censor artistic expression.
In July 2018, the city agreed to settle Nancy and Lubomir’s lawsuit, issuing a public apology and allowing them to keep the mural. In addition, Nancy was named to a committee to advise the city council about changes to the sign ordinance. The victory represented a huge a win for Nancy and Lubomir’s rights and the rights of everyone in Mount Dora.