Our Opinion | Wilson council: save mural from city censorship

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Eleven large letters and hundreds of intricate illustrations served as the eye chart in a public policy vision test this week.

Six members of the Wilson Planning and Design Review Board flunked the exam, showing themselves to be hopelessly shortsighted.

They couldn’t see the big picture — and we don’t mean the mural at the center of an art censorship controversy that’s giving the city of Wilson a bad name.

The planning board voted Tuesday to redefine signs and art installations in the unified development ordinance, but the panel rejected a compromise endorsed by Wilson city planners that would leave Dave Matthews’ mural on the exterior wall of Brewmasters undisturbed.

In late 2016, the gastropub commissioned Matthews to paint the panoramic mural. He made the artistic choice to cover the wall with colorful characters and use the negative space between illustrations to spell “Brewmasters” in uneven block letters, uniting the paintings around a common theme.

Wilson zoning officials said the presence of the business’ name makes the mural a sign and issued a notice of violation in January 2017, ordering it to be altered or removed. Rhyan Breen, attorney for Brewmasters and owner Morkos Youssef, submitted a citizens’ amendment requesting vague terms in the ordinance to be defined.

City staff under the direction of Chief Planning and Development Officer Rodger Lentz wrote their own tweaks to the rulebook. The new regulations would limit lettering to 100 square feet for murals as well as signs, but they include a grandfather clause for “vintage original art murals” installed prior to the rules’ adoption.

That clause would shield Matthews’ mural from censorship, and Lentz and his colleagues deserve credit for reaching a prudent compromise. The planning board went rogue and threw the win-win scenario out the window by voting to strike the grandfather clause from the ordinance.

Wilson will violate the First Amendment if it orders so much as a dab of paint removed. Municipal sign ordinances regulate advertising, or what the U.S. Supreme Court terms “commercial speech.” Murals containing artistic and political speech enjoy constitutional protection from such rules.

City officials said the word “Brewmasters” transformed the mural into an advertising sign as if it were a magical incantation. Using the business name as a bright-line test may sound logical to some, but it’s a make-believe standard devoid of any legal weight.

In the 1980 Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission case, Supreme Court justices found that commercial speech is “expression related solely to the economic interests of the speaker and its audience.” The 1983 Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products case refined that definition further, establishing a three-prong test for commercial speech under which the Brewmasters mural would be definitively labeled art, not advertising.

A city ordinance doesn’t trump the Bill of Rights — it’s the other way around. The planning board seems to think we live in the People’s Republic of Wilson rather than Wilson, North Carolina, USA.

If the city council continues down the planning board’s reckless path, the road to resolution could run through a courtroom, with Wilson taxpayers footing the bill for an ill-fated fight against free speech. That would be nothing less than an outrage, while the current state of affairs is merely an embarrassment.

With the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Eyes on Main Street outdoor photo festival, Wilson has hitched its wagon to the visual arts for tourism and economic development. Promoting folk art and photography in one breath and censoring a mural in the next is positively schizophrenic.

The Wilson City Council is scheduled to consider the planning board’s recommendation at its Jan. 18 meeting. A vote to restore the grandfather clause wisely drafted by city staff would put this issue to rest.

If you agree that your tax dollars shouldn’t be used to censor artwork, call or email your councilman and ask him to #SaveDave — preserve Matthews’ mural, rescind the violation notice and stand up for artists’ freedom of speech.

The city of Wilson posts council members’ contact information on its website to help residents reach their elected officials. We’re providing it here for your convenience:

• Mayor Bruce Rose, 252-237-6750, brose@wilsonnc.org

• District 1 Councilman A.P. Coleman, 252-237-3284, coleman021@myglnc.com

• District 2 Councilman Michael Bell, 252-315-5654, mbell@wilsonnc.org

• District 3 Councilman Tom Fyle, 252-243-2996, tom_fyle@yahoo.com

• District 4 Councilman James Johnson, 252-230-9281, jamesmjohnsoniii@myglnc.com

• District 5 Councilman Donald Evans, 252-237-0417, devans@evansmachinery.com

• District 6 Councilman Logan Liles, 252-292-2075, loganliles@myglnc.com

• District 7 Councilman Derrick Creech, 252-315-3768, ddcreech52@hotmail.com