Judge Hears Arguments Over Removal of Student Painting from Capitol

David Pulphus paintingA federal judge heard arguments this week in a lawsuit over the removal of a painting by a St. Louis teen from the hallway of an office building in the U.S. Capitol complex. The painting by David Pulphus on the theme of police violence hung for several months alongside other student art contest winners from across the country until it caught the notice of Fox News and some members of Congress, who personally removed it from the wall multiple times.

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 Missouri Rep. William Lacy 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 hearing before D.C. District Judge John D. Bates last week, the pro bono team of lawyers representing Pulphus faced off with Assistant U.S. Attorney Marina Braswell. The arguments largely hinged on the question of whether the student art contest qualified as “government speech or private speech in a public forum.” Braswell argued that the contest in itself is a government message–that of showing “support for young artists”–and that the government therefore can exercise editorial control over what is included.

Pulphus’ legal team countered that this is “too broad and diffuse a theme to count as a government message,” and that the painting apparently conformed to art competition rules up until it came under partisan fire. Judge Bates, a George W. Bush appointee, expressed scepticism that political pressure did not influence Ayers’ decision to remove the work.

During the Congressional tug-of-war over the painting, CBLDF signed on to a statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship condemning the apparent viewpoint-based removal of Pulpus’ painting.

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2017 by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.