Arizona Supreme Court Holds that Tattoos are Constitutionally Protected Speech Entitled to First Amendment Protection.

Coleman v. City of Mesa, 230 Ariz. 352, 284 P.3d 863 (2012)

Ryan and Laetitia Coleman applied for a permit to operate a tattoo parlor in Mesa, Arizona. City officials denied the application based partly on concerns that the parlor would be inappropriate for the neighborhood where it would be located. The Colemans sued the City, alleging that its denial of their application violated their rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection under the U.S and Arizona Constitutions. In Superior Court, the City successfully moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the Superior Court’s dismissal of the Colemans’ suit.

On review, the Arizona Supreme Court held that tattoos, as well as the process and business of tattooing, is purely expressive activity entitled to First Amendment protection. Such activity, the Court held, can be regulated only through generally applicable laws and reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions subject to review under intermediate scrutiny. The Court noted that “[a] tattoo involves expressive elements beyond those present in a ‘pen-and-ink’ drawing, inasmuch as a tattoo reflects not only the work of the tattoo artist but also the self-expression of the person displaying the tattoo’s relatively permanent image.” Under this definition, the Colemans stated a claim under the First Amendment because they alleged the City’s denial of their application was not a reasonable time, place, and manner regulation of their speech. Additionally, the Colemans stated claims for violations of due process and equal protection because they alleged that the ordinance and permit denial did not satisfy intermediate scrutiny, that the City “acted arbitrarily in denying them a permit[,] and that the action did not further any legitimate government purpose.” Having recognized the Colemans’ claims as legally cognizable, the Court remanded the case to the Superior Court for further proceedings.