A Capitol Hill controversy over a student painting portraying police and protesters as animals moved to the federal courts Tuesday when a Missouri congressman said its removal from the U.S. Capitol walls violated the young artist’s right to free speech.
Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) and Missouri student David Pulphus said in a 19-page lawsuit in Washington that the Architect of the Capitol violated Pulphus’s First Amendment rights in “bowing to overt political pressure” from House Republicans to remove the work Jan. 17 after it had been displayed for seven months.
Pulphus said the painting, one of more than 400 works by winners of a national student art contest from each congressional district, was inspired by the 2014 civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., near his home. The art depicted a horned beast similar to a wild boar in a police uniform in the foreground tangling with a protester rendered as a wolf. In the background, protesters hold signs, including one that says, “Racism kills.”
Pulphus’s painting was removed the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday after Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) said in a statement that he had been informed by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s office that Capitol officials had concluded that the painting violated House rules.
Ryan (R-Wis.) cited rules against “depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature” on the Capitol premises. Law enforcement groups and conservative media outlets said the work portrayed police officers as pigs and was disrespectful to police.
Clay and Pulphus sued Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers over what they called “the unprecedented step of retroactively disqualifying” a contest winner after previously finding that it met all requirements and hanging it for seven months. They asked a court to reinstate the painting and rehang it in a busy corridor between the U.S. Capitol and Cannon House Office Building.
“The AOC’s decision to remove the Painting — based solely on these objections to its content and viewpoint — constitutes a ‘heckler’s veto’ and a clear violation of Mr. Pulphus’s constitutional rights” and those of the artwork’s congressional sponsor, Clay, according to the lawsuit.
In a statement released by his office and in comments outside the federal courthouse, Clay added that the removal of the painting “sent a chilling message to young Americans that their voices are not respected.”
He added, “This case is truly about something much bigger than a student’s painting. It is about defending our fundamental 1st Amendment freedoms which are currently under assault in this country.”
A spokeswoman for Reichert declined comment at this time, and Ryan’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In January, Ryan said that the painting was “disgusting” and “not befitting the Capitol.”
“It’s not as if you have a constitutional right to hang whatever painting you want in the House hallway,” he said.
In a statement at the time, Reichert said: “With any competition there are rules, and these rules exist for a reason. This painting hung in clear defiance to those rules and was a slap in the face to the countless men and women who put their lives on the line everyday on behalf of our safety and freedom.”