Tattoos are intended to convey a message. Whether it’s an old-school-style pinup girl or the modern favorite “tribal language,” the tattoo bearer, presumably, gets inked because of the message that it conveys. Perhaps the message is meant only for the tattoo bearer but perhaps it is intended for those who see it. Maybe it’s a combination of both.
Either way, residents of Arizona now have a First Amendment right to send a message via permanent body art, according to the Arizona Supreme Court. Last week, the court ruled last week that tattoos are a form of protected speech. In reaching its opinion, the court looked to an earlier decision by the 9th Circuit, which held that a tattoo is pure speech and that the act of tattooing is expressive activity.
The case was remanded to the Maricopa County Superior Court, which will decide whether the city has the authority to regulate tattoo parlors. The decision must take into consideration that the tattoo shops are engaged in constitutionally protected speech.
So why does this matter to employers? I can think of two questions that the decision would seem to raise.
First, does the opinion support the argument that a Facebook “like” constitutes speech subject to constitutional protection? (If you’ve got no idea why this matters, see my prior post, Social Media as Speech).
Second, does this mean new obligations for public employers in Arizona? Since a tattoo is protected speech, government employers cannot regulate it without a reasonable justification for doing so. Will this be the end of tattoo-prohibitions in Arizona’s public sector?