Tim Hanlon

Joe Cotter did not expect the judge to rule in his favor on Thursday morning, December 22.

Cotter—a 56-year-old from Eagle Creek, near Estacada, who paints for McMenamins when he's not designing and painting murals throughout the region—was hoping to intervene in a long-running lawsuit between Clear Channel and the City of Portland. Someone, Cotter argued in front of Multnomah County District Court Judge Michael Marcus, had to stand up for murals. Much to Cotter's surprise, Judge Marcus agreed.

Since 1998, Clear Channel—then AK Media—and the city have been battling over the city's sign and billboard rules. Clear Channel originally argued that the city unconstitutionally discriminated against commercial advertising by exempting murals from the city's restrictive sign regulations.

In 1999, the court ruled for AK Media. So the city—ordered by the court to not differentiate between murals and commercial signs on the basis of content—essentially banned both billboards and murals. "They folded murals into the sign code," Cotter explains. "That made it almost impossible to do murals."

Cotter and other artists challenged the city's mural-unfriendly sign code in 2001, when they applied to put a mural on a Russian restaurant on Foster Road. That fight eventually led to a compromise: the Public Art Murals Program, approved by the city council last December, and administered by the Regional Arts and Culture Council. Murals in Portland are now exempt from the sign code, but subject to review by a public art committee that evaluates things like the artistic merit of a proposed mural and community support for the project. A company like Clear Channel could also apply under the program to paint a commercial mural, and face the same constraints as artists. "You can put a sign through and call it art," Cotter points out.

But instead of applying to throw up a few signs via the mural program, Clear Channel took the city back to court, arguing that the Public Art Murals Program is unconstitutional, and snubs the earlier court ruling.

"We didn't even find out [about the challenge] until August," Cotter says. After reviewing the court briefs, Cotter decided to try and jump in. If someone doesn't stand up for murals in Portland, Clear Channel's challenge could "scuttle the whole business," Cotter argues. At the very least, Cotter hopes to preserve the new mural program. It's not perfect—"The sign code has still unconstitutionally placed a chill on art production," Cotter says—but it's a step in the right direction. "We want to build upon that."

So on Thursday morning, in front of Judge Marcus, Cotter—whose long white beard and slightly rumpled blue suit set him apart from the attorneys—asked to join the case so he can speak on behalf of artists. "There's been a missing ingredient," in the case, Cotter told Judge Marcus. "Artists. We've been curtailed from expressing ourselves."

Moments later, Judge Marcus granted Cotter's motion to intervene. For the next few months—until the city, Clear Channel, and Cotter meet again in Judge Marcus' courtroom on April 12—Cotter will refine his argument, with the help of public art and mural advocates, like his cohorts at Portland Mural Defense.

"We'll establish that art in the public realm is something that's not a sign, because you're doing it for different reasons," Cotter says. While the city may be barred from regulating art and commercial signs differently on the basis of content, Cotter plans to argue that there is a way to separate the two forms of expression based on context. "There has to be a way to have art in the public realm that's not subject to veto by Clear Channel or another sign company."