WASHINGTON — A St. Louis congressman filed a federal lawsuit today in the removal of a student painting depicting a police officer with a boar-type head, charging the Architect of the U.S. Capitol Stephen Ayers with suppressing the artist’s First Amendment rights.
“David’s painting was wrongly disqualified and removed from the public exhibit at the direction of the Architect of the Capitol who shamefully chose to retroactively censor and suppress Mr. Pulphus’ artwork in response to the enormous political pressure he experienced from the speaker of the House and certain right-wing media outlets,” Rep. Wm. “Lacy” Clay (D-Mo.) said today outside of the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse. “We contend that action was unfair, arbitrary and unconstitutional.”
The annual Congressional Institute art competition solicits entries from high school students each spring. Students submit works of art to their congressional offices, and teams of artists representing the district pick the winners, which are displayed in the Capitol for a year. The controversial winner is from Clay’s district, which includes the city of St. Louis and northern areas of St. Louis County.
The painting, “Untitled #1” by Cardinal Ritter High School grad David Pulphus, had been hanging in a House walkway among other contest winners since June. In January, after learning about the painting’s depiction from Twitter, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) took it down. Clay put the painting back up, starting a tug-of-war with some House Republicans over the artwork. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) even proposed a congressional resolution to remove the painting.
Ayers decided to remove the painting after deciding it violated contest rules, which state, “Artwork must adhere to the policy of the House Office Building Commission. In accordance with this policy, exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature are not allowed.”
Clay argued today that the painting “was initially reviewed, accepted and approved for public display under the very same standards and criteria that apply to all student entries in this prestigious, annual competition.”
The congressman added that “this intolerable and unprecedented action by the architect of the Capitol has not only deprived my constituent of his First Amendment rights, it has also sent a chilling message to young Americans that their voices are not respected, their views are not valued and their freedom of expression is no longer protected in the U.S. Capitol.”
“So this case is truly about something much bigger than a student’s painting, it is about defending our fundamental First Amendment freedoms, which are currently under assault in this country,” he said. “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.”
Clay’s pro bono legal team includes former federal district court law clerk Leah Tulin, of Jenner & Block, former civil court district judge James Williams of Chehardy Sherman Williams, and Kymberly Everson, of the Pacifica Law Group.
The congressman told reporters he’s seeking “an appropriate remedy” through the litigation.