By JANET McCONNAUGHEY
NEW ORLEANS (AP) – A New Orleans ordinance limiting street art sales to two parts of the French Quarter violates the right to free speech, the Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled.
The 5-2 decision Friday came in the case of Lawrence Clark, who was ticketed in 2016 for showing art for sale in the broad median of Esplanade Avenue, which runs between the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny.
The ordinance unconstitutionally limits artistic expression in every New Orleans neighborhood outside the French Quarter, said the majority opinion written by Justice Marcus Clark of West Monroe.
Public defender Laura Bixby, who represented Lawrence Clark, said the decision means “artists are free to display art for sale in any other neighborhood and not risk getting cited for a crime.” She said any appeal would have to go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Neither the city nor the state Attorney General’s Office, which defended it before the state Supreme Court, responded Friday to requests for comment.
The dissent, by Justice Bernette Johnson of New Orleans, said in part: “Without the ordinance, anyone would be free to sell their artwork anywhere in the city, undermining the city’s efforts to maintain the character and economic vitality of the French Quarter.”
The city ordinance allows artists to get permits to sell their art in and around Jackson Square and off Bourbon Street, in Edison Park, a small area better known as Musical Legends Park. Street sales are not allowed anywhere else, and violators can be fined $500 and sent to jail for six months.
The city also has six or more art markets , some open daily on private properly and others once a month in public spaces. “Those operate under a separate special agreement,” Bixby said.
Lawrence Clark, 43, was cited March 22, 2016, for setting up his art on a table “on the neutral ground,” as New Orleanians call medians. Lower courts refused to throw out the citation, finding the ordinance reasonable.
The justices found that the ordinance didn’t restrict content, but did have to be “narrowly tailored” and leave “ample alternative channels.” For instance, it said, reasonable restrictions might regulate the distance between an artist and the road, or prohibit “distracting behavior.”
“In a city with allegiances to neighborhoods spanning generations, the people who populate Central City, the Garden District, the Irish Channel, Broadmoor, Hollygrove, Gert Town, Mid-City, Treme, City Park, Lakeview, Gentilly Woods, Faubourg Marigny, St. Roch, the Lower Ninth Ward, Little Woods, Village de L’est, Lake Catherine, Algiers Point and English Turn, among other neighborhoods, have limitations imposed on their constitutionally-protected artistic expression,” Justice Clark wrote for the majority.
Johnson was joined in the dissent by Justice Jefferson D. Hughes III of Walker. She wrote: “A swarm of art sellers on city streets would also increase congestion and impede pedestrian and traffic flow, creating public safety concerns. Further, it is my opinion that a city, by regulation, can protect local merchants who incur substantial costs to sell artwork in the city by controlling and governing outdoor vendors of art who necessarily siphon off some of the sales from these local merchants.”
Bixby said she didn’t expect hordes of artists to clog the streets.
“The law has been on the books for a while but has been sort of selectively enforced, I think. I found a few dozen cases over the years,” she said. “I think it will just make it less risky for artists to display art as they already were doing.”
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