Cozy Inn owner sues City of Salina over planned mural

SALINA, Kan. (KAKE) – The owner of an iconic Kansas hamburger restaurant has filed a federal lawsuit with the City of Salina over what they claim was a violation of his First Amendment rights regarding a mural.

The Kansas Justice Institute and Steve Howard, owner of the Cozy Inn, filed the lawsuit Monday, after city officials told him he had to stop painting a mural on the side of the restaurant. The city says because the Cozy Inn sells hamburgers, and the mural depicts hamburgers as flying saucers, the mural would be considered a regulated sign instead of unregulated artwork, and is a violation of city code.

Howard says he wants to finish the mural.

“Over 90% of our customers are travelers,” said Howard. “I want them to feel the fun and excitement when they get here. My customers traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, and they are excited but now they are finally here, and it is fun when they see the aliens who traveled light-years to get here.”

In a press release, the Kansas Justice Institute says the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not allow the city to restrict speech, such as murals and other artwork, based on the message it conveys or identity of the mural’s owner.

“Downtown Salina is vibrant, unique, and beautiful. The Cozy’s artistic mural is too. The First Amendment protects the right to finish the mural,” says Sam MacRoberts, KJI litigation director. “Salina is a great city with a set of really bad, unconstitutional laws and policies.”

The lawsuit does not seek money from the city.

The City of Salina has released the following statement:

The City of Salina has been notified that it has been named as a defendant in a federal district court civil lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of certain aspects of the City’s sign code and its application to a partially installed painted wall sign at The Cozy Inn.  Although the City believes its current sign code enforcement is legally justified, there have been ongoing conversations about The Cozy Inn sign as well as possible policy changes the community may wish to undertake while providing for the administration of any proposed exceptions or policy changes in a fair and impartial manner community-wide.

In establishing sign regulations, communities are attempting to set up a set of standards that can be equally and fairly applied across all property owners, businesses, tenants, etc. that are within the same zoning district. Nationwide, this has frequently resulted in regulations similar to what Salina has in place that establish a ratio of signage numbers and size based on building or street frontage to maintain a level of proportionality to the building.

The City of Salina has been very deliberate and consistent in its regulation of signs in the community in light of the applicable case law regarding the standards by which signs and commercial speech may be regulated.  The City believes its sign code and administration of the sign code are compliant with the volume of court cases that exist on this topic.  Over the last decade, the regulation of signage and public art has become an increasingly challenging discussion for communities across the United States because of differing opinions on what is art and what is commercial signage.

The City previously committed to enlisting the services of a sign code consultant as a subject matter expert to assist with conducting community listening sessions and drafting possible policy-based amendments for further consideration in response to community input that is received.  Wendy Moeller, Principal/Owner of Compass Point Planning, has been retained by the City and 5 stakeholder meetings were held on February 15th & 16th including a public listening session for the public at large.

There will be additional public meetings conducted as part of this project.  Interested parties can email questions and comments to [email protected].  They may also receive project notifications by subscribing to the “sign code” email list at