February 20, 2018

Family files federal complaint to save their “Starry Night” mural

By Jeremy Talcott Attorney
The family in front of their Starry Night inspired mural.

Today we filed this complaint against the City of Mount Dora, along with emergency motions asking for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the city. We alleged that the city has acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally by fining Nancy Nemhauser and Lubek Jastrzebski for a Starry Night-inspired mural that adorns the wall and house on their private property. The mural was painted by a local artist, and has special meaning for the family–their adult son lives with autism, and some people have speculated that Vincent Van Gogh was autistic.

Before any painting started on the family’s private wall, Nancy called the Planning & Development Department to ask about any required permits or restrictions. Several city employees answered (quite truthfully) that there were “no restrictions” at all on painting , and therefore no permits were required to put a painting on the wall. But once work began, some city officials in code enforcement decided they didn’t like the mural, and the city has been on a vendetta to destroy this unique and vibrant piece of art ever since.

First, Mount Dora code enforcement tried to call the mural “graffiti,” but the graffiti ordinance in Mount Dora only applies to “abandoned property,” and this mural was intentionally painted on Nancy and Lubek’s residence. At the code violation hearing, the city dropped their graffiti claim and instead argued that the mural violated its “sign ordinance,” which regulates the placement of signs on one’s property. A magistrate agreed with the city. Under the interpretation adopted at the hearing, anything that attracts attention to itself can be considered a “sign” under Mount Dora’s sign code. Because the code only allows a few limited categories of signs, that would mean that almost all expressive art or adornments on private property in Mount Dora are prohibited. But the Supreme Court has been very skeptical of sign codes that distinguish signs based on content, that prohibit too much speech, or give city officials too much discretion.

The fines are now over $10,000, and that amount is growing by $100 each day. That’s why we’ve filed the emergency motions asking the court to step in and place a hold on the fines until a federal judge has an opportunity to resolve the significant constitutional issues raised by the actions of the city.

In the meantime, over 10,000 people have shown their support of art and private property rights on a change.org petition asking the city to let the mural stay.

Keep up to date on our case page.

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Nemhauser v. City of Mount Dora

What started as artistic expression in Mount Dora, Florida, has escalated into a bureaucratic nightmare for Nancy Nemhauser and Lubomir Jastrzebski. When the couple painted a Van Gogh-style “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 $3,100 with orders to paint over the mural. On behalf of Nancy and Lubomir, PLF is challenging the city. We argue that banning such artistic murals is an abusive interpretation of the city’s sign ordinance, and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

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