Active: Federal lawsuit challenges unconstitutional mural ban

Brad Smith traces his lifelong career as a muralist back to his teen years when he got into trouble at school and was sent home. His dad refused to let him sit around the house and ordered Brad to go work on a church mural he’d been hired to create.

He has been painting murals—and much more—ever since, especially in Texas, where his work helped spark the artsy Deep Ellum community and Fort Worth’s Near Southside district and brightened buildings and economies in many other small towns across the state. The incidental appearance of one of Brad’s murals in a 1990 Vanilla Ice music video garnered a national audience and additional clients.

Brad later formed Tilt Vision Art with his wife, Kay Ray-Smith, in Fort Worth. The multi-faceted business unites artistry and entrepreneurship, selling original artwork, and creating vibrant, attractive murals for residential and commercial clients, all the while promoting art-based economic development and making art accessible to the public.

In December 2022, after securing a promising new commercial contract and leads on several others, the couple relocated their operations to Waller, Texas, a rural bedroom city of 2,600 people wedged between Dallas and Houston.

Finishes Solutions, a Waller-based real estate development and construction firm, hired Tilt Vision to create 13 murals for its buildings. In addition to the artwork, Brad and Kay were excited for the opportunity to help revitalize another of the Lone Star State’s older communities.

Less than three months and three completed murals later, a Waller resident complained to city council members that the colors used for one mural—depicting clouds and the night sky—were too bright and demanded the city restrict murals. The city council obliged and, in February 2023, voted unanimously on a brand-new, heavy-handed mural ordinance.

The ordinance specifically bans murals on commercial building fronts, murals used as advertisements, and those containing any type of “commercial messaging,” that is, logos, written references to a business’s products, and even possibly their depictions. Other citizens are banned from placing murals with personal, religious, or cultural messages on a commercial building if the building owner charges a fee. Additionally, each new mural must be registered with the City and the artist must pay a hefty $500 fee before starting work.

The City’s new law explicitly bans the type of murals most often created by Tilt Vision—commercial murals that feature businesses’ or building owners’ names and the products they sell.

The repercussions were swift; Finishes Solutions suspended its Tilt Vision contract indefinitely. All other leads disappeared. And Brad and Kay have been unable to obtain any new contracts in the city.

Under the First Amendment, however, the government cannot restrict expression that it doesn’t like. Yet the City of Waller has done just that, enshrining into law its own aesthetic preferences in an effort to kill a thriving art mural business. And similar regulations are popping up in other cities to police “acceptable” types of public expression while trampling free expression and economic freedom.

Represented free of charge by Pacific Legal Foundation, Brad and Kay are fighting back with a federal lawsuit challenging Waller’s mural ordinance as unconstitutional. A win for Tilt Vision will restore their protected speech, their livelihoods, and the ability of future artist entrepreneurs to provide valuable economic revitalization opportunities for communities through art and mentorship.

What’s At Stake?

  • People have a right to earn a living through their art. The government cannot expressly discriminate against a small business’s freedom of expression based on the art’s content.

Case Timeline

October 12, 2023
United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas