Sparks Pays Artist $250,000 to Settle First Amendment Case

SPARKS, Nev. (AP) - The Sparks City Council has agreed to pay $250,000 to a street artist who sued the city five years ago over a
violation of his First Amendment rights.

The council voted 4-1 on Monday to approve the settlement with San Francisco artist Steven White and his attorneys, Terri Keyser-Cooper and Diane Vaillancourt. The amount covers attorney fees and damages, said assistant city attorney Tom Riley.

The vote came hours after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the city's appeal of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling in favor of White.

The case stems from 2003 when White sued the city over an ordinance that prohibited him from setting up his easel on the sidewalks and parks in the city and selling his paintings without a license.

City officials said the settlement ultimately saves the city about $80,000 from what the claim was expected to total. The council had rejected an opportunity to settle the case in January for $200,000 while appeals were still pending.

U.S. District Judge David Hagen in Reno ruled that the city's ordinance infringed on White's constitutional rights under the First Amendment.

The city appealed Hagen's decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and a three-judge panel ruled in White's favor last August.

"So long as it is an artist's self-expression, a painting will be protected under the First Amendment, because it expresses the artist's perspective," Judge Betty B. Fletcher said in the majority opinion. "White's paintings, which communicate his vision of the sanctity of nature, do more than propose a commercial transaction and therefore are not commercial speech."

The ruling made clear that not all artwork was protected, saying, "We expressly reserve the question whether all paintings merit First Amendment protection. We are not asked to decide the protection accorded to paintings that are copies of another artist's work or paintings done in an art factory setting where the works are mass-produced by the artist or others."

Council members John Mayer, Phil Salerno, Ron Smith and Mike Carrigan voted for the settlement. Councilman Ron Schmitt was opposed.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)