"Butterflies Are Free!" ACLU Declares in PA Artwork Controversy
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
UPPER ST. CLAIR, PA — Artist and animal rights activist Nancy Bellamy got a reprieve today in her fight with town officials over a 4-foot by 8-foot painting of butterflies displayed on her front lawn.
In a preliminary settlement agreement, officials in Upper St. Clair — a suburb of Pittsburgh — agreed not to pursue punitive action against Bellamy for at least a month. Bellamy and her husband Randall are being represented in the matter by the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Usually, the ACLU is called on to defend homeowners who are told to remove political signs from their yards,” said Witold Walczak, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh ACLU. “I think this is the first time we’ve been asked to defend butterflies.”
But defend them they will, Walczak said. “No matter how light-hearted the subject matter of the artwork, the First Amendment protection is the same as for more serious political speech,” he said.
The butterfly painting is not the only expression Bellamy has displayed. In May, she posted a similar sized display on her lawn in opposition to deer hunting on local park lands by residents. In keeping with a town rule, she removed the sign three days after the measure passed.
But after displaying the butterfly painting, she received a letter on July 21 from township officials saying that the work, which they characterized as “an expression of sign creativity,” is not permitted within a residential zoning district.
The township’s code permits signs “relating to residential use,” real estate, identification, political, event advertisement, directional and congratulatory signs, as well as flags and “holiday lights and decorations with no commercial message.” Despite the large number of signs and displays that are exempted from the policy, paintings are prohibited.
Bellamy, who holds a bachelor’s degree in art from Chatham College, said she was displaying the work for aesthetic, not political, reasons, but that it shouldn’t matter.
“Life gets ugly sometimes and I just wanted to do something beautiful,” she said. “As an artist, I should have just as much right to display this painting in our front yard as any other homeowner has to put up a gnome or religious symbol.”
The Township, which will undertake a review of the constitutionality of its sign ordinance, agreed to give the ACLU ten days advance notice if it decides to go forward with penalties against the Bellamys. Walczak expressed his gratitude to Township officials for agreeing to reconsider the matter without forcing litigation at this time.
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