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South Carolina’s highest court heard a challenge to the state’s tattooing ban, focusing on whether the practice is an issue of free speech or public health. Ronald White, who was sentenced to five years of probation for illegal tattooing, says a South Carolina law that allows tattooing only by physicians violates his First Amendment right of free expression. Oklahoma is the only other state with a similar law. “We all have a right to look at a painting, but this law would ban the artist from painting it,” White’s lawyer, Jared Newman, told the South Carolina Supreme Court Wednesday. But Charles Richardson of the state attorney general’s office said the law was “not a banning of ideas, but the medium utilized. … the human body.” “Isn’t tattooing a form of artwork?” Chief Justice Jean Toal asked. She said tattooing was mentioned in literature and throughout history as a form of expression and that courts have held that activities such as nude dancing were forms of expression. “The state has restricted this artwork to a licensed physician,” she said. Newman said the state allows other forms of so-called body art, such as piercing. In that case, practitioners must be licensed and regulated, restrictions that would also eliminate the public health concerns surrounding tattoos. Justice Costa Pleicones questioned Newman on whether the act of tattooing was protected speech. “Who’s doing the expressing here? It’s not illegal to have a tattoo,” Pleicones said. State Sen. William Mescher has been trying since 1994 to legalize and regulate tattooing. His chief opponent has been Rep. Jake Knotts, who has said that “if the Lord wanted you to have a tattoo, he would have put it on you.” White, 32, contends that tattooing is older than most of today’s religions and his first tattoo — a star of David combined with a cross — was an homage to his Jewish and Christian heritage. He said he has given many illegal tattoos in South Carolina. White challenged the law when a television station aired footage of him giving a tattoo in 1999. “It was only after I tattooed on TV that I got warned by police,” White said. He said he has stopped tattooing in South Carolina because it would be a violation of his probation. After the hearing, White said he was encouraged by the justices’ line of questioning. “I think they were educated questions and (the justices) realize they are dealing with an art form,” he said. Last fall, a Massachusetts trial judge ruled that state’s law banning tattooing violated free speech rights. Another judge kept the ban in effect for several months so the state could create industry regulations, and tattoo parlors began operating there legally in February. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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