That a person's home is his or her castle is one of the first principles of property rights. As long as the rights of neighbors or passersby are respected, property owners should be free to use their property as they see fit. This would include issues of design, as was the case when Erica and Laurent Chappuis placed inoffensive, original art in front of their home in Grosse Point Park and encountered a four-year hailstorm from city officials demanding the painting be removed — or else.
Placing art on one's property might seem unremarkable, provided there's nothing that might prove offensive in accordance with public standards. In fact, in some communities, lawn sculptures and other forms of decorative art are the norm. The city of Grosse Pointe Park, however, begged to differ when artist Erica Chappuis placed one of her own paintings in the front of her own house. Declaring the painting of a young girl innocently frolicking with her horse in violation of the city's sign ordinance, Grosse Pointe Park fined Laurent Chappuis, Erica's husband, and ordered the picture removed.
"We had an air-conditioning unit that was placed in the front of our house," explained Erica. "It wasn't very attractive, so Laurent and I decided to place one of my paintings in front of it."
The painting prompted pedestrians who jogged, bicycled or walked their dogs in front of the Chappuis residence to comment that they enjoyed the artwork. "We never heard anyone state that the painting offended them," Erica said. "Everyone we talked to said they really liked it."
Everyone, that is, but local government officials, who declared that the couple was breaking the city's law against signs placed in residential areas. The Chappuises refused to remove the painting, however, sparking a four-year legal battle with Grosse Pointe Park after Laurent Chappuis was charged with violating the city code.
The case went to trial in November 2007. Grosse Pointe Park Municipal Court Judge Carl Jaboe found Laurent guilty in October 2008. The couple appealed to Wayne County Circuit Court, where last August the guilty verdict was overturned and the ordinance found unconstitutionally vague by Judge Bruce Morrow.
"The city of Grosse Pointe Park asserts that the plan [sic] reading of the ordinance makes it plain as the smile of Mona Lisa's face, that a reasonable and common sense definition of sign would automatically include art," wrote Morrow in his opinion. "As such, Appellant was found guilty of violating Section 27-101(f) of the City Code, Illegally Erecting a sign.
"This court finds that Section 27-101(f) is unconstitutionally vague and as such reverses the ruling of the lower court and remands this case of the lower court to be dismissed
"The entire text of a statute must be examined to determine whether or not it is vague. The State must provide a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know required behavior. Reading the entire text [of] this code does not alert a reasonable person that a permit is required for 'art.'"
The common sense ruling of Judge Morrow didn't prevent the city of Grosse Pointe Park from appealing, but in late October the city dropped its appeal.
The case may not be resolved, however. As Erica pointed out, there's nothing preventing the city from rewriting the code in the future to prohibit her paintings from being displayed in front of her home.
Bruce Edward Walker is communications manager for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network and editor of The Refuge. He may be reached at email@example.com.