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Debate Erupts in New Hampshire Town Over Donut Mural Sparking Free Speech Issues

by Andrew Wright
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Sean Young, the owner of a bakery in Conway, New Hampshire was really excited when some art students from high school decorated the big wall over his entrance with an awesome painting. The artwork depicted the sun shining on mountains created out of different types of pastries like donuts, muffins, and cinnamon rolls sprinkled all over with chocolate and strawberry toppings. Everyone who saw this amazing painting absolutely loved it. Sean even looked forward to doing more mural projects with that same school in the near future.

The town’s zoning board didn’t like the mural on Young’s bakery because they said it was more like an advertisement than art. So, Young had to modify or remove the mural or get in trouble with fines and criminal charges. He decided to sue the town saying they were not allowing him his right to freedom of speech. The mural can only stay there if it shows real mountains instead of pastries that look like mountains, and not on a bakery building.

Young told Big Big News that while they said the thing he was doing would be considered as art somewhere else, it just wasn’t seen as art by this town. He also argued that the town shouldn’t have a say in whether something is classified as art or not.

The people of this small town of 10,000 people are discussing important questions about creativity and freedom as they try to keep their town rural. Just like other mountain towns that have skier, hikers and shoppers, Conway is becoming more developed. This can make the debate over the sign even more difficult because if there isany agreement for business purposes, it could alter what the locals treasure.

The people who saw the students’ painting were really impressed, but they said that even though the rules were old, we still had to follow them. The mural was bigger than what was allowed by the law- it was 90 square feet which is 4x bigger than what was allowed!

Last week, people living in the town held a meeting to decide how a sign should be worded. But the local newspaper said their suggestion was not clear enough and it’s still being debated about. Steve Downing, who is retired, said that he believes the painting should stay because the kids worked hard to make it. It might take a judge to decide what happens with this debate.

Charlie Birch, a former Forest Service worker, said that everyone must obey the law. Even though the students did a great job making the law, you can’t make any exceptions. If there is an exception made, then everyone else will want to be treated specially too.

The art teacher, Olivia Benish, said she was sorry to the board in September because she didn’t check if their mural would follow the law. She did not provide an interview, but she told the board members that students should be able to make art without going against any rules.

In January, a guy named Young went to court because he thought the town wasn’t being fair to him. He wanted a judge to stop the town from enforcing their sign rule. This has caused some problems for other businesses too. Before the pastry painting was installed, other murals had been allowed in a shopping center, but now three of them have been found to be too big and violate size limits. Those artworks will go before the zoning board on Wednesday.

A guy named Young is being helped by a company called Institute for Justice. He asked for only $1 as compensation. He’s selling t-shirts to raise money for his high school art class and the T-shirt has two messages – one on the front with a piece of artwork and another at the back with a sign from a bakery.

Officials in Conway confirmed that a painting is not considered a sign by the town unless it communicates what they think is a message related to business. The lawsuit stated that this restricted interpretation of what counts as a sign is unfair because it depends on the speaker’s identity and the type of speech being used.

The lawsuit is saying that the town’s rules about signs are really broad, so much so that it doesn’t even mention murals. According to Conway’s code, a sign is “anything that has colors, pictures, lights, symbols or writing on it to advertise something or give information about any person or thing – whether for commercial purposes or not.”

Board member Luigi said he believes that pastry painting should be considered as art, not advertising. He recited the definition of it at a meeting in August and agreed with a lawyer who labelled it “unclear”.

Luigi, who had recently retired, said: “This law was written very badly”. But Board Chairperson John pointed out that voters had already approved the ordinance and that there is an existing way to make changes if needed.

At the August meeting, Colbath said that it would be better if they had done a mural on the wall with pictures of things like bridges and sunflowers since that wouldn’t make people think it’s an advertisement sign. He then said to Young that even though you can see a mountain from the bakery, others might just think of donuts instead. Young replied that most people though it was still art.

The board decided that the bakery won’t lose anything if it doesn’t have a display. Betsy Sanz from the Institute said in an announcement that although murals are different than signs, it’s basically the same thing when it comes to freedom of expression. That means we should treat both types of things the same way under the First Amendment.

Back in February, the town and a person named Young accepted not to punish anyone with fines or charges till the people decide if a painting can stay or not. Sadly, it failed last week’s election by 805 votes against 750 for it. The judge wishes to listen to both sides of the story before May 10. Young said he is ready for what comes next.

John Eastman, the town manager, did not want to talk about it. He asked Jason Dennis, the town lawyer, to answer questions and talk with town leaders soon to decide what should be done.

Last week, the Conway Daily Sun shared their opinion and said that the plan to change definitions of signs should be dropped or put on hold. They also think people generally like the nice paintings at Leavitt’s Country Bakery and Settlers Green. The Sun suggested coming up with a new definition that will include art so it is easier to enforce.

John McCormack was in Concord, New Hampshire.

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