A federal judge has suspended enforcement of a city’s fines against the owners of a home painted with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” theme, ruling that such punishment would cause “immediate and irreparable injury” to the owners.
As WND reported, officials in Mount Dora, Florida, a town known for its Modernism Museum and Mount Dora Center for the Arts, were taken to court by the owners of the home.
The city already had assessed fines of $8,600, and they were going up by $100 a day.
The dispute began when a local artist approached Nancy Nemhauser and Lubek Jastrzebski about painting a wall that surrounds their house, which had been adorned with cracked and peeling paint.
They called the city’s Planning & Zoning Department and were told that there is no code for aesthetics on house paint, so no permit was required.
They then contracted with the artist to use the theme from Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” artwork.
The city then started taking an interest, and a code enforcement officer informed the couple the wall paint had to match the house, so they contracted with the painter to extend the mural to the full house.
Not good enough, the city said. Pay the fine.
But now U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. has ordered the fines stopped and held in abeyance for 14 days, which may be extended.
“Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their First Amendment, Equal Protection, and Due Process claims. The city of Mount Dora would irreparably harm the plaintiffs by continuing its enforcement each day on the plaintiffs with daily growing fines and with potential imposition of a lien on the home,” he wrote.
The Pacific Legal Foundation said the most important part of the ruling was that “it shows that the judge agrees that we are likely to succeed on our constitutional claims.”
PLF said the city code officer called the newly painted mural “graffiti” and ordered the owners to paint over it.
“Mount Dora, Florida is considered an artsy community,” PLF said. “Popular locations downtown are the Modernism Museum and Mount Dora Center for the Arts. Local artists operate an arts collective, with murals adorning the building and walkway in. Its 43rd annual arts festival is taking place this weekend. But city officials have targeted one piece of art in the community – a mural inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night – and they are intent on having it removed, even if there’s no statute giving them that authority.”
The city claims the authority to regulate house paint under its “sign ordinance,” and officials “hope that the ever-growing fine will convince the family to abandon their lawsuit challenging the city’s interpretation of the sign ordinance.”
The city already has conceded its characterization of the project as “graffiti” wasn’t correct.
Officials then claimed it actually is a sign, “because it attracted the attention of people.”
PLF said it’s “hard to imagine what wouldn’t be a sign under a definition this broad.”
“A nice car parked in a driveway, a hanging flag, or distinctive landscaping could each be said to attract attention. Nancy and Lubek have appealed this absurd interpretation, and Pacific Legal Foundation has agreed to represent them, free of charge.”