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Tattoos are free speech protected by Constitution, U.S. appeals court rules

September 9, 2010 | 11:53 am

Photo: Johnny Anderson, owner of Yer Cheat'n Heart tattoo parlor in Gardena, inks a design on customer Josh Such. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times Tattoos and the art of tattooing are "forms of pure expression fully protected by the 1st  Amendment," a federal appeals court ruled Thursday in a challenge to the ban on tattoo parlors in the city of Hermosa Beach.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the city to allow tattooing in at least some of its areas zoned for business, saying a total ban was "facially unconstitutional."

The city was sued by Johnny Anderson, co-owner of Yer Cheat'n Heart Tattoo in Gardena. A native of Redondo Beach, Anderson had been trying to open a parlor in Hermosa Beach since 2006 but was repeatedly rebuffed by city officials who refused to allow the practice on grounds that tattooing can lead to infection or disease if not done properly.

Tattooing "is a process like writing words down or drawing a picture except that it is performed on a person's skin," the appeals panel said in overturning a lower court ruling that the subcutaneously inked images were not sufficiently expressive to deserve protection.

"A form of speech does not lose 1st Amendment protection based on the kind of surface it is applied to," the panel stated.

Anderson's attorney, Robert C. Moest, said he expected Hermosa Beach officials to reconsider an earlier city staff proposal to open the commercial zone around Pacific Coast Highway and Aviation Boulevard to tattoo parlors.

An attorney for the city, John C. Cotti, said he had not yet seen the court ruling and did not know how city officials planned to respond.

The case was one of "first impression" for the 9th Circuit, establishing what will now be precedent, if unchallenged or upheld, in extending constitutional protection to tattoos as forms of speech.

-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: Johnny Anderson, owner of Yer Cheat'n Heart tattoo parlor in Gardena, inks a design on customer Josh Such. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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