Missouri Congressman William Lacy Clay has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to protect the First Amendment rights of his constituent David Pulphus, whose painting on the theme of police violence was repeatedly removed from the wall of a U.S. Capitol complex office building by other members of Congress last month.
The painting had hung undisturbed alongside other student art contest winners for more than six months before it became a political bone of contention in early January. Pulphus’ work depicts a protest march foregrounded by a police officer aiming his weapon at an unarmed subject. At least one officer in the painting is shown with the head of a boar, while his target appears to be a wolf or black panther, as The Hill suggests. Also prominently featured in the painting is a young African American man crucified on the scales of justice, and protest signs such as “RACISM KILLS.” Pulphus completed the painting while he was a student at Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School in St. Louis.
The painting raised no outside notice until last month when Fox News’ Eric Bolling urged viewers to call Rep. Clay or their own Congressional representatives to demand that it be taken down. Clay staunchly refused to censor the work, but California Rep. Duncan Hunter literally took matters into his own hands, unscrewing the painting from the wall and then depositing it with Clay’s office staff. Since then, the work was restored by Rep. Clay and removed by other House members multiple times.
Finally Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers, who oversees the building and grounds, acquiesced to a formal request from Speaker Paul Ryan to remove the painting on the grounds that it does not conform to one of the Congressional Art Competition’s rules barring “exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature.” Since that time the painting has hung in Rep. Clay’s own office.
In the lawsuit filed against Ayers this week, Rep. Clay maintains that the ban was “unfair, arbitrary and unconstitutional” because the painting had already been approved under those same rules last year. In a press release on his Congressional website, he made clear that the suit aims to protect free expression rights for all Americans, not just Pulphus:
[T]his 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.
And that includes the right to artistic expression…even when that creativity is considered objectionable by some, and applauded by others. That right is strongly protected by Supreme Court precedent.
Rep. Clay’s lawsuit in the District Court for the District of Columbia is being handled pro bono by attorneys Leah Tulin, James Williams, and Kymberly Everson.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.