Nemhauser v. City of Mount Dora

City apologizes after violating First Amendment rights

Cases > Freedom of Speech and Association > Nemhauser v. City of Mount Dora
Won: Settlement reached.

What started as artistic expression in Mount Dora, Florida, escalated into a bureaucratic nightmare for Nancy Nemhauser and Lubomir Jastrzebski. When the couple painted a van Gogh-style “The Starry Night” mural on a wall outside their house, the city declared the art “graffiti” because it didn’t match the color of the house. But when Nancy and Lubomir responded by painting a similar mural on the house, the city branded both as illegal “signs,” and fined them hundreds of dollars per day with orders to paint over the mural. On behalf of Nancy and Lubomir, PLF is challenged the city. We argued that banning such artistic murals is an abusive interpretation of the city’s sign ordinance, and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. In July 2018, Nancy and Lubomir declared victory when the city council voted to settle the lawsuit and allow the mural to remain.

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.

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What’s at stake?

  • The First Amendment protects artistic expression like the Van Gogh mural Nancy and Lubomir commissioned for their home. Government must have a powerful, clearly articulated justification to regulate the exercise of First Amendment rights rather than the personal taste or whims of individual bureaucrats.
  • All regulations must be procedurally fair, with standards that are clear to everyone. Mount Dora cannot use its vague sign law as a way to attack a mural simply because the city doesn’t like it.
  • Government can’t single out a particular property owner for selective, arbitrary restrictions that don’t apply to everybody else.

Case Timeline

April 19, 2018
February 21, 2018
February 20, 2018

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