University of Southern California

Graffiti and the Constitution: A First Amendment Analysis of the Los Angeles Tagging Crew Injunction

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Note by Kelly P. Welch
From Volume 85, Number 1 (November, 2011)

In 2008, a group of taggers known as the Metro Transit Assassins (“MTA”) painted a giant “MTA” tag in the Los Angeles riverbed that was visible from downtown office buildings and freeways. The three-story-high tag extended for half a mile along the riverbed and used an estimated four hundred gallons of paint. The government projected that it would cost $3.7 million to clean up the tag, including taking the necessary precautions to contain the toxic paint and runoff during cleanup. A graffiti historian explained that the tag was “definitely a statement, . . . [t]o do something that big and bold it takes organization.” Seven alleged MTA members were arrested in 2009 for the tag. During the arrests and ensuing searches, law enforcement found specialized tools that enable such large-scale, logistically difficult tagging: high-pressure fire extinguishers filled with paint.

In response to the riverbed tag and a multitude of other MTA graffiti vandalism throughout Los Angeles, the Los Angeles City Attorney filed a complaint in July 2010 seeking a civil injunction against MTA and its members. If granted, the injunction would, among other things, prohibit possession of graffiti tools, prohibit public association with other members of MTA, prohibit profiting from graffiti, and impose a curfew on MTA members. First Amendment challenges to the injunction have already begun: in May 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) filed defense motions containing First Amendment challenges to the injunction, but they were denied by the Los Angeles Superior Court. In August 2011, the California Court of Appeals denied defense motions challenging the Superior Court ruling.

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