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Last fall a Black Lives Matter mural went up on a homeowner’s fence in West St. Paul. Now it’s coming down because it violates city ordinance. The homeowner plans to paint over the mural this week.
“We feel that it’s our responsibility to lend voice and further legitimacy to our Black and brown brothers and sister who are literally being murdered in broad daylight, in the middle of the street, in the center of the busiest cities, across America,” the homeowner, Ryan Weyandt, said last fall.
Originally the fence also promoted a political candidate, Kimetha “KaeJae” Johnson who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the last election, but that portion of the mural was removed after the election according to state law.
Similarly controversial signs that opposed abortion also appeared in West St. Paul last fall and were also removed for violating city ordinances.
What the Law Says
Removal of the mural has nothing to do with the content. The ordinance—two of them, actually—are pretty clear on the subject:
The fence ordinance:
“Fences can contain no words or pictures and must be of uniform color.”West St. Paul City Ordinance 153.381
The sign ordinance:
Under prohibited signs: “Signs painted, attached or in any other manner affixed to fences.”West St. Paul City Ordinance 153.434
For a sense of comparison, South St. Paul, Mendota Heights, and Inver Grove Heights all have similar language prohibiting signs on fences. None had the no pictures and uniform color restrictions for fences.
Why Did It Take So Long?
It became clear the mural violated city ordinance last year, though city staff gave the homeowner until spring—April 15 specifically—because repainting the fence would be too difficult in cold weather. We shared back in January that the mural would be coming down.
Why was it allowed in the first place? State law about political signs during an election trumps city code, so West St. Paul couldn’t enforce the ordinances during the election. Once the election was over, enforcement began again.
City Council Debate
West St. Paul’s City Council discussed the sign ordinance in January but failed to come to any consensus on what to do.
“You can’t read sign to find out if it’s legal,” said City Attorney Kori Land. “You regulate time, place, and manner, not content.”
Once the city makes decisions about the content of a sign or mural, they run into first amendment censorship issues.
“I don’t want to be the arbiter of what is acceptable and unacceptable art,” said Council Member John Justen. “The problem is the only way not to be the arbiter of what is or isn’t is to allow it all or to allow none. We can’t take a middle position because it won’t legally work.”
So the existing ordinance has taken the route of banning all art. The City Council could change that—the Twin Cities are full of murals, there are dozens on the West Side alone—but at the recent meeting there wasn’t clear direction on how to do that without throwing open the doors to what some would consider unacceptable messages.
April 9, 2021 Update: Complaint-Driven Enforcement
City spokesman Dan Nowicki said the code enforcement team has received more than 20 complaints about the mural since September. He said it’s impossible to tell how many different people made those complaints because some were anonymous.Star Tribune
This aspect of the story hasn’t been discussed much: Enforcement is mostly driven by complaint. I talked to city staff today who said it was probably 80% or more complaint driven. That helps explain why enforcement is so inconsistent. Weyandt has said he had signs on his fence in previous years and was never asked to take it down. That’s because no one complained.
The problem with complaint-based enforcement is potentially controversial messages like this one get enforcement while others are completely ignored. It also means code is inconsistently enforced, making the city look like it’s choosing sides. Ultimately, the approach can empower bullies who can snitch on their targets as a form of harassment.
The opposite approach is to do proactive enforcement where the entire city is swept for violations. West St. Paul used to take that approach in the mid-2000s, and the result is predictably unpopular.
Part of the City Council discussion back in January centered on what would be easiest to enforce. The Council members didn’t want to create a burden on city staff. As the city looks for a way forward, proactive and complaint-based enforcement have their drawbacks. One possible solution? Less restrictive ordinances require less enforcement.
April 11, 2021 Update: More News Coverage
More media coverage of the mural saga from WCCO and Bring Me the News, which mostly rely on other reporting. But the New York Times also weighs in (with a story that includes a link to our interview with Johnson from last summer). For those keeping track, this is the second time this year West St. Paul has made the New York Times. The first was coverage of Brood, a new novel released in March by West St. Paul resident Jackie Polzin.
April 12, 2021 Update: City Council Response
While tonight’s regular meeting was cut short due to an emergency declaration and curfew, which precluded any public comments, the work session included a heated debate about the mural. Ultimately, five council members supported postponing the fines until the next meeting when there would be more time to consider the issue.
April 8, 2021 Update: My Opinion: All or Nothing Is a Boogeyman, Bring on Public Art
Here’s my take: I love public art.
I used to run a website where I drove around the Twin Cities cataloging and mapping public murals and sculptures. There are literally hundreds of amazing works of art throughout the Twin Cities that people can encounter on a daily basis. I also led the effort to bring art to our formerly empty art park.
I’m all for public art.
Right now, I think the city is fairly enforcing the ordinance as written. Many people love this mural (I do), but enforcement isn’t about the content of the mural. You can’t put any mural on a fence in West St. Paul, whether it’s advocating for racial justice or just a series of alternating colors.
So let’s change the ordinance.
The biggest argument against changing the ordinance is that it’s an all or nothing equation. If you allow any “art” on a fence, you have to allow all “art” on a fence.
But all or nothing is a boogeyman. It’s a scare tactic intended to assume the absolute worst outcome happens. If you allow all art, then you’re willing to have all kinds of hate messages—think racist symbols, swastikas, etc. If you allow all art, then you could have something really ugly.
But that’s not reality:
- Right now, West St. Paul city ordinance allows one sign per yard, with no restriction on message. How many hate-filled yard signs do we have? I’ve never seen any.
- As I said before, there are hundreds of murals across the Twin Cities in other municipalities. None of them seem to have a problem being overwhelmed with negative messages or “ugly” art.
- In 2012, a sitting West St. Paul City Council member flew the Confederate flag. There was nothing the city sign ordinance could say about it. He eventually removed the flag due to public pressure.
The law can’t decide what’s ugly or not and the law can’t decide what’s good or bad. So let people decide. Give people the freedom to express themselves.
Will we have signs or murals we may personally disagree with? Sure. We already do with yard signs. Will we get a mural some people think is ugly? Sure, and some people will think it’s amazing. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Rather than focus on how changing the ordinance could go wrong and bring messages that give West St. Paul a bad name or create ugly works of art that somehow drive down property values (because neither of those things are happening in the rest of the Twin Cities), let’s focus on the uplifting and healing power of art.
By changing this ordinance, we could welcome a wave of creativity and beauty.
It’s not an easy change. There are lots of nuances and complications to city code. Rules for residences and businesses are different. If we allow art on fences, what about the side of a house or a garage door? We could also include limitations to ensure a mural is kept up and peeling paint doesn’t become the norm. There are likely other factors and considerations to debate. And yes, when someone puts up a mural we don’t like, they’re free to do so (and we’re free to say we don’t like it and even protest, which has happened in the past).
So instead of getting up in arms that the city is being unfair (they’re not), let’s get up in arms that we have an ordinance that limits free expression and change it. Let’s embrace public art and all the challenges that come with it and not give in to the scare tactics.
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