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A federal appeals court in San Francisco has ruled tattooing is a form of free speech. The ruling not only effects all of California, but the other nine western states that fall under the 9th Circuit.
A three-judge panel ordered the Southern California city of Hermosa Beach to allow tattoo parlors to operate
Judge Jay Bybee wrote that tattooing is a "unique and important method of expression," protected by the constitutional First Amendment right of free speech.
Hermosa Beach, with a population of about 19,000, had a ban on any type of tattoo parlor. City officials cited health and safety concerns.
Several state courts and federal trial courts have upheld similar bans in other cities across the country. Free speech expert Jesse Choper said it's unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would take up the case if appealed, noting that Bybee is a politically conservative judge.
The measure was challenged in a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2007 by Johnny Anderson, a tattooist who had a shop in city of Los Angeles and wanted to set up in Hermosa Beach.
He said in a court filing, "The tattoo designs that are applied by me are individual and unique creative works of visual art, designed by me in collaboration with the person who is to receive the tattoo."
The appeals court said the city's health concerns could be taken care of through regulation of tattooing, rather than an absolute ban on all tattoo parlors in the city.
The court said the free-speech right applies to both tattooists and their clients and to the process of tattooing as well.
Bybee wrote, "Tattooing is a process like writing words down or drawing a picture except that it is performed on a person's skin."
He said, "The tattoo cannot be created without the tattooing process any more than the Declaration of Independence could have been created without a goose quill, foolscap and ink."
Under state law, tattooists must register with county health departments. Hermosa Beach officials argued that they were concerned that Los Angeles County had only one inspector to monitor nearly 300 local tattoo parlors.
Hermosa Beach City Attorney Michael Jenkins said the city was disappointed with the ruling and hasn't decided whether to appeal.
Bay City News contributed to this report.