When my husband, Lubek, moved from communist Poland to America many years ago, he thought he had left behind Kafkaesque tribunals where government officials suppressed speech under vague or non-existent laws. But that was before we had the wall outside our house in Mount Dora painted with a mural in the style of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”
From the moment the painting began more than a year ago, city bureaucrats launched a series of power plays to force us to destroy the mural, even though the city has no ordinances that limit how a house may be painted.
The whole idea for the mural came about as we began preparing the house for our son, Chip, and his caregivers. Our son has autism and several medical issues that require full-time care. We plan to move to a condo we own across the street, so our son can live his adult life in the home he knows and loves, and we can literally watch over him at all times.
As we were restoring the house, a local artist reached out to us, and suggested that painting a lovely, artistic mural would greatly improve the cracked and peeling wall surrounding the home.
We fell in love with the idea, and decided on a Mount Dora-themed mural inspired by The Starry Night, one of our son’s favorite paintings. Chip has a tendency to wander from home, and the mural would be a beautiful landmark to help him return home.
I called the city’s planning and building department and asked what permits were required to put a painting on a wall facing a city street. Each person I spoke to told me the same thing: No permit was required and there were “no restrictions.”
After painting had started, I came home to a citation from Mount Dora code enforcement, calling the mural “graffiti” and ordering us to paint it over. We called code enforcement, who told us that the wall needed to match the house. So, we did what any law-abiding citizen would do. We had the artist extend the mural to the entire house, so the wall and house would match. But that wasn’t the response code enforcement was looking for—they wanted the mural gone.
The day of our code enforcement hearing last September, the city suddenly dropped its graffiti claim. Instead, the city called the mural an unpermitted sign. The magistrate ruled that Mount Dora’s code allowed anything that “attracted the attention of the public” to be treated as an unpermitted sign unless it was otherwise explicitly allowed.
We’re not sure what wouldn’t be a sign, if that’s the standard. Holiday decorations, lights, statues, benches, or even a nice car attract attention. But it would be silly to call any of them a sign.
As fines against us grew at $100 per day—to a stunning total of $10,600—we didn’t give up. With the help of Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented us for free, we took the city to federal court because the city’s ordinance is unlawful and unconstitutional.
Our First Amendment rights exist so that government officials can’t pick and choose which speech they will permit and which speech they will censor. And our laws have to be written, and clearly articulated, so that people know what is or is not allowed.
Someone in the city government didn’t like that there were “no restrictions” on how we painted our house, but that’s why there are laws in the first place: so that no one person in power can make arbitrary decisions based on their own personal tastes.
Thankfully, Pacific Legal Foundation’s lawsuit prompted the city to realize this too, and dropped their persecution. The mayor even publicly apologized for putting us through this year-long ordeal. I’m even more encouraged by the City Council’s decision to revise its sign code with help from a new special advisory committee.
For my husband Lubek, this fight against the city was reminiscent of what he calls “the dark times” of communism, where expression was suppressed and bureaucrats ruled by fiat. We now look forward to brighter times ahead, to enjoying the painting that our son loves, and to keeping our liberty intact.
Nancy Nemhauser and her family are residents of Mount Dora.