Atlanta Property Owner Challenges "Big Brother" as Art Critic

Affiliate: ACLU of Georgia
September 21, 2004 12:00 am

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Atlanta Property Owner Challenges “Big Brother” as Art Critic

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ACLU Lawsuit Calls Ban on Owner-Approved Building Murals ‘Unconstitutional’

Don Bender

ACLU of Georgia client Don Bender, who organized the painting of a “World Wall of Peace” on one of his Atlanta properties, supports owners’ rights to allow art on their property.

ATLANTA–The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of an Atlanta resident and commercial property owner challenging the constitutionality of parts of the city’s graffiti and public art ordinances that prohibit businesses and individuals from commissioning art murals for their own buildings. The lawsuit does not challenge that part of the law that makes it a crime to “tag” (place graffiti on) a building without the owner’s consent.

“Our challenge is focused solely on the rights of property owners who commission art murals for their own buildings,” said Gerry Weber, Legal Director of the ACLU of Georgia. “Under the Atlanta law, to put up art on your own property, you must obtain approval from no less than three city departments and the City Council itself – at each juncture somehow meeting vague and undefined standards for approval,” said Weber. “That’s an Olympic-sized set of hurdles.”

The ACLU of Georgia filed the lawsuit on behalf of Don Bender, a business owner in Atlanta who often displays local artists’ work on the outside walls of his properties. The lawsuit seeks an order limiting the scope of Atlanta’s graffiti ordinance to persons who vandalize a property with graffiti and without the owner’s consent.

“I have enthusiastically supported public art on my own properties, and I don’t think public officials should judge that art,” said Bender.

Bender recently organized a “World Wall of Peace” on one of his buildings, and another work, an “Australian Aboriginal Art Wall” in East Atlanta, won an award from the city’s Urban Design Commission.

“We tend to think of graffiti as something government should protect us from, but in this case, graffiti is in the eye of the beholder,” said Debbie Seagraves, Executive Director of the ACLU of Georgia. “This ordinance is not about protecting the property owner from vandalism. It has crossed the line by giving government the right to decide which art is acceptable. That’s a choice that should be left to the property owner.”

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia.

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