ACLU of Rhode Island Challenges Local Ban on Tattoos for 18-to-21-Year-Olds

November 19, 2002 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — Saying that tattoos are a “unique form of personal art” protected by the First Amendment, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a lawsuit in district court challenging a local ordinance that prohibits adults between the ages of 18 and 21 from getting tattoos.

“The government would never be permitted to outlaw certain works of art from being hung on a person’s wall in his or her private home,” said Carolyn Mannis, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Rhode Island. “Why should the government be permitted to outlaw works of art on a person’s body? This is the type of government infringement the Bill of Rights was designed to protect against.”

The ACLU brought the lawsuit, Arruda and Figueiredo v. Town of Bristol, on behalf of Alfred Figueiredo, owner of the Forbidden Art Studio, a tattoo parlor in Bristol, and a potential customer, Nicholas Arruda, who would like Figueiredo to design and place a tattoo on him. According to the ordinance, persons between the ages of 18 and 21 are prohibited from getting tattoos. The crime carries a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to one year in prison or a $300 fine. Bristol, a town of 22,000, is located about half an hour from the state capital of Providence

“I think the ordinance discriminates against me as an artist and my clients,” said Figueiredo. “I don’t think it’s right to pass a law that says you can vote or be in the military when you’re 18, but you can’t get a tattoo. It’s also wrong since in any other city or town, you can be 18 and get a tattoo.”

In its legal complaint, the ACLU said that the ban violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and a similar state provision that protects freedom of expression. The ACLU said the ordinance also infringes on the privacy rights of young adults.

Individuals get tattoos “to demonstrate their commitment to other persons, to institutions, to religious beliefs and to political or personal beliefs,” the ACLU said in legal papers, noting that tattoo artwork “is the subject of art museums, gallery and educational institution art shows across the United States.” Tattoos are “no less a form of expression than parades, marching, displaying swastikas, wearing an armband, saluting or refusing to salute a flag, singing or other artistic endeavors,” all of which are protected by the First Amendment, the ACLU said.

The ACLU also pointed out in its brief that Department of Health regulations already comprehensively address licensing and inspection requirements for tattoo artists and “effectively address any health and public safety risk associated with tattooing.”

There have been very few cases addressing the First Amendment implications of tattoo regulations. Last year, however, a Massachusetts court struck down that state’s total ban on tattooing, finding it an unlawful burden on “constitutionally protected expression.”

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