The city of Mandan, North Dakota, is being sued for an attack by its “mural police” on a sunset scene featuring mountains, a ranch and cowboys at the Lonesome Dove saloon.

The Institute for Justice filed the action in federal court to protect the mural that the owner of the longtime business had allowed an employee, also an artist, to paint over an old beer-company logo.

“The First Amendment prohibits Mandan from acting like the ‘mural police,'” said IJ attorney Erica Smith. “Murals are a form of free speech and the First Amendment doesn’t let the government say what speech is OK and what isn’t”

IJ noted the problem isn’t surprising for those who know Mandan’s mural regulations.

The city bans “commercial messages” in murals such as the name of a business. It also bans murals on the front of buildings, “because – as the city admitted – it wants to hide murals that may be ‘political,’ ‘controversial,’ or ‘provoke thought.'”

“Finally, the city uses the mural-permit process to play art critic, ordering changes to planned murals to suit the city’s liking,” IJ said.

The lawsuit seeks not only protection for the Lonesome Dove artistry, but also for other residents subject to the mural restrictions.

“We are not going to take the mural down until we have to,” Augie Kersten, co-owner of the saloon, said in an IJ report. “We won’t go down without a fight.”

The dispute developed when Kersten decided last fall to brighten up an “otherwise drab and industrial area where his business faced the highway.”

The business, started 28 years ago, has become a second home for cowboys and other locals.

It commissioned a waitress to paint a sun setting over the mountains, with a ranch and cowboys scattered across the landscape. Artistically rendered across the top of the mural are the words “Lonesome Dove.”

But the city soon issued a notice of violation, ordering the business to apply for a “mural permit.”

Two costly applications followed, but ultimately city officials ordered it to be destroyed.

IJ, however, is arguing that the guidelines banning murals from the fronts of buildings and any commercial message are “blatantly unconstitutional.”

The city is thinking about changes to its regulations, but so far, IJ said, the proposals “would neither allow Lonesome Dove’s mural to stay nor fix the regulation’s current constitutional problems.”

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