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Law and art


In the name of public safety, Grosse Pointe Park requires permits for signs, and Erica and Laurent Chappuis, who have displayed her paintings in their yard without such permits, are breaking the law, the suburb’s attorney said at a Wayne County Circuit Court hearing last week.

The Chappuises admit they did not apply for permits before erecting the paintings — which often feature earth tones and natural settings — for which Laurent Chappuis has been prosecuted. (Never mind they own the house together; city officials have never explained why only he was charged.)

Last year, Grosse Pointe Park Municipal Court Judge Carl Jarboe found him guilty of violating the suburb’s sign ordinance. (See "Criminal Art," Oct. 8, 2008 and "Out of the Park," Nov. 14, 2007)

Chappuis appealed, and on Jan. 16, Wayne County Circuit Judge Bruce Morrow held a hearing where attorney Ari Lehman, representing the city, tried to explain why it has an interest in regulating paintings on residents’ houses.

"If you meet all the terms, then you get a permit," Lehman said at the hearing. "This is not about the artwork. You must have a permit."

It’s part of the city’s responsibility for public safety, he said.

"Art is unsafe?" asked Morrow, who has 14 paintings and tapestries displayed in his courtroom. (It’s just speculation on our part, but we’d say that’s not exactly a good sign for the city.)

"Art is not unsafe," Lehman responded. "Signs can be unsafe."

They could be installed incorrectly and fall down or they could be combustible and ignite, Lehman said in defense of the ordinance.

News Hits supposes that, in a worst-case scenario, a faulty sign might burst into flame as it is falling, both knocking an unsuspecting passerby unconscious and setting them on fire at the same time.

But sculptures and statues — other forms of art — are not regulated, pointed out the Chappuis’s attorney, William Burdett. The Chappuises contend the art is constitutionally protected expression.

"The fact that sculptures and statues are not regulated and should be is irrelevant," Lehman said.

But that’s probably only because no one at City Hall has ever been laid low by an out-of-control, flaming Alexander Calder mobile. We think maybe someone should look into that.

Morrow questioned Lehman about how the city’s ordinances are applied. If he painted his garage door white and included a green triangle on it, would that be a violation?

"I would have to take a very close look at the statute," Lehman said.

Flags are also regulated by the Grosse Pointe Park code. Up to a certain size, flags of countries may be displayed but technically not other types of standards.

"I don’t see how a Halloween flag, smaller than an American flag, could pose a danger to anybody. A flag is a flag," Morrow said. "There you’re getting into content regulation and saying what you have on your flag is what matters."

But News Hits wants to know: What if it’s, say, a really, really scary Halloween flag? It could give someone a heart attack. Did you ever think about that?

The Grosse Pointe Park code defines signs as "any announcement, declaration, display, billboard, illustration, and insignia when designed and placed so as to attract general public attention."

The Chappuises contend this case is about the First Amendment right to speech and expression and that the city cannot regulate it in the case of artwork at their home. "This is a speech that is on private property … and this is a question that we need to address," Burdett said at the trial. "There are no standards issues for when a permit would be applied, whether or not if even I had the Mona Lisa, if I could put it in my front yard."

Morrow said he’d have a decision in week or so. News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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