National Public Interest Law Firm Calls on Conway Officials to Stop Attack on Bakery’s Donut Mural
ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest law firm, sent a letter to town officials in Conway, New Hampshire, requesting they stop their effort to force a local bakery to paint over a mural made by local school students. The letter explains that Conway’s treatment of Leavitt’s mural as a “sign” is discriminatory and contrary to the First Amendment.
In June, students from Kennett High School painted a colorful mural above the front door of Leavitt’s Country Bakery on White Mountain Highway. The mural features a New England mountain landscape made entirely of baked goods, such as donuts, scones and muffins. Leavitt’s owner Sean Young said at the time, he thought the mural “would be a fun project for kids and good for the community.”
But no good deed goes unpunished. Two months later, town officials decided that they would treat the students’ mural as a “sign” subject to strict size and location restrictions. Why? Simply because the mural’s mountainscape depicts baked goods like those sold at the bakery. Thus, officials believe the sign should be treated as an advertisement.
On October 20, Young appealed that decision to the Conway Zoning Board, explaining that having to tear down the mural would create “undue hardship” to his business. He also noted that it seemed wrong that Conway would be perfectly fine with the mural if it did not include paintings of baked goods.
“If Leavitt’s wanted a mural the exact same size and location that didn’t depict baked goods, that would be perfectly okay according to town officials,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Frommer. “But banning certain murals simply due to what they depict violates the First Amendment by turning town officials into the speech police. That’s why we’re requesting that the town back off and let Leavitt’s keep its mural up.”
The town’s sign code is written very broadly, defining a sign as anything used to “advertise, announce the purpose of, or identify the purpose of any person or entity, or to communicate information of any kind to the public, whether commercial or noncommercial.” But in practice the code is applied much more unevenly. For instance, the town of Conway considers the Leavitt’s painting to be a sign, but considers other paintings in Conway (such as a “Welcome to North Conway” painting at the Settlers Green shopping center), to be a mural—all based on what Conway deems to be the message conveyed by the painting. During the September 21 Zoning Board hearing, one zoning official admitted the only reason the town was going after Leavitt’s pastry painting was because it is “showing what is inside that building.”
“Leavitt’s painting is safe and attractive, and that would be equally true whether it depicted donuts or the White Mountains,” said IJ Law and Liberty Fellow Betsy Sanz. “Free speech means that individuals, not the government, get to decide what to paint on their own private property.”
IJ has stood up for the First Amendment rights of other small business owners by fighting back against similar sign laws. Those lawsuits include a victory allowing a North Dakota saloon to keep its mural up, another permitting a Florida video game store to keep an inflatable Mario out front, and one which saved a Sacramento gym’s ability to advertise on a sandwich board out front.