In the small town of Conway, New Hampshire, a local bakery’s mural depicting pastries — painted by a high school art class — has spawned a conversation about government censorship of art and First Amendment rights. Owner Sean Young of Leavitt’s Country Bakery and the Institute for Justice, a libertarian nonprofit public interest law firm, are suing the town of Conway for a symbolic $1 after the zoning board ordered the mural be removed because it depicts goods sold within the shop, and therefore qualifies as an illegally large sign.
In 2021, Young bought Leavitt’s Country Bakery, a nearly 50-year-old local institution. Early last year, a friend connected Young with local Kennett High School art teacher Olivia Benish. Benish was searching for a community art project for her students, and Young agreed to let the class paint a mural on the front facade of his new business. A few months later, the students painted a mountainscape comprised of pastries — doughnuts, muffins, cookies, etc. — against the backdrop of a sunny sky, a nod to Conway’s location near New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The project took five weeks to paint and was finished in June 2021.
Only nine days after it was completed, however, Conway’s code enforcer told Young that the mural needed to be removed.
“At first I was really upset about them telling me to paint over it because it was a great thing for the kids,” Young told Hyperallergic. “It was a great art project.”
Young posted about the incident on social media and attracted droves of local supporters. He attended Conway’s August zoning board meeting, but despite citizens’ vocal outcry, the town office upheld its decision. In September, Young and a large group of community members (including Benish) advocated for the mural at another zoning board meeting, but the town office again kept the order in place. (It’s not the first time that Conway has enforced its strict sign ordinance: It recently ordered the nearby Settler’s Green outlet mall to remove its murals on similar grounds.)
Young hired a local lawyer in October, but soon, the Institute for Justice reached out and took on his case, which Young said was the only way he would have been able to financially continue his legal fight. The nonprofit organization defines itself as a “national law firm for liberty and a prominent defender of economic liberty and First Amendment rights for individuals, entrepreneurs, and businesses — especially small businesses,” and has a record of fighting small towns on similar bureaucratic oversteps.
“I think it sets a good example for all the people in town who have had their rights trampled on,” said Young. “Hopefully it will create some good change in the town and more positivity between the town board and everybody who lives here, because right now the relationships are pretty strained.”
At the end of 2022, the mural still remained on Leavitt’s Country Bakery, and the town office told Young that he could face criminal charges and fines if he did not paint over the work by February 2. On January 31, Young and the Institute for Justice officially filed a lawsuit against the town of Conway. They also filed a restraining order against the removal of the mural to which the town has agreed. As of today, the mural is still in place.
Beyond fixing what many see as Conway’s needlessly strict sign ordinance and enforcement, the Institute for Justice sees Young’s case as a fight for a bigger issue.
“This case is about the right of small business owners, and all Americans, to display art as protected by the First Amendment,” Institute for Justice litigation fellow Betsy Sanz told Hyperallergic over email. “If this mural didn’t depict donuts, the town would be fine with it. Or if this same mural was on the farm stand next door, rather than on the bakery, that would also be fine with the town. That is absurd. The government shouldn’t get to play art critic and decide what is and isn’t acceptable art, or who is and who isn’t an acceptable displayer of art.”
Conway’s zoning ordinance states that it “has no intention of restricting individual free speech, but the Town does recognize its right to place reasonable restrictions upon commercial speech.” The town has not responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.
“In the end, town officials came after Leavitt’s mural not because it’s a threat to anyone, but because they don’t like what it depicts,” Young wrote in a February 7 letter to the editor of the Conway Daily Sun.
“That’s censorship, and that’s why I teamed up with the Institute for Justice to give Conway a civics lesson in the First Amendment.”