By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona's Supreme Court, stepping into a zoning dispute over a tattoo parlor, ruled on Friday that tattooing was a constitutionally protected form of free speech, the first such decision by any state high court in the country, lawyers said.
The ruling stemmed from a dispute between tattoo artists Ryan and Laetitia Coleman and the Phoenix valley city of Mesa, which denied the pair a business permit three years ago to set up shop in a local strip mall.
The Colemans, an American-French couple who live and work in the French city of Nice, originally applied to Mesa in July 2008 for a business permit, and city zoning staff recommended it be issued to them the following February.
After a public hearing, the board voted to recommend the council deny the permit, arguing the shop was "not appropriate for the location or in the best interest of the neighborhood," according to court documents.
The Colemans filed a lawsuit in 2009 alleging violations to their rights to free speech, due process and equal protection under both the U.S. and state constitutions. The suit was dismissed by the Maricopa County Superior Court.
"Recognizing that tattooing involves constitutionally protected speech, we hold that the superior court erred by dismissing the complaint as a matter of law," the state Supreme Court said in its ruling.
The ruling does not mean that Mesa must allow the Colemans to open their tattoo parlor, only that the court erred in dismissing their suit. It noted that cities had the right to regulate business location through zoning ordinances and that the "factual dispute" between the parties would have to be determined at trial.
The Colemans have sought a ruling allowing them to open their parlor and want compensation for business lost over the past three years.
"It is very significant ... Tattoo artists are often subjected to enormous regulation, especially in terms of operating their businesses," their attorney, Clint Bolick, told Reuters.
"As a result we now know that in Arizona, tattoo artists will be able to ply their trade free from excessive regulation," he added.
The question of whether tattooing is protected speech had been litigated in other U.S. states with mixed outcomes, Bolick said, adding the Arizona decision was the first by a state Supreme Court to affirm it was protected speech.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Peter Cooney)