In the final act of the notorious “Untitled #1” painting saga, a federal judge has rejected Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay’s petition to put the painting back up in the Capitol building.
Hailing from the District Court for the District of Columbia, judge John D. Bates cited the painting as government speech, legitimizing the several attempts to hide the painting from public view.
In 2014, following the escalated relations among citizens and police officers of Ferguson, Mo. after officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, Cardinal Ritter College Prep student David Pulphus painted the artwork as a depiction of how he viewed police attitudes towards African-Americans.
Saying the painting “speaks for itself”, Pulphus’ canvas symbolizes police officers as animals, specifically portraying officers as pigs.
Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay hung the competition-winning painting in a hallway adjoining the U.S. Capitol with the House office building. Following its removal by Capitol Architect Stephen Ayers after several attempts by Republican legislators to take down the painting, Clay pursued a formal injunction in January.
“There is little doubt that the removal of the painting was based on its viewpoint,” Judge Bates explained. “Although the Court is sympathetic to plaintiffs given the treatment afforded Pulphus’ art, under controlling authority this case involves government speech, and hence plaintiffs have no First Amendment rights at stake.”
The painting was given space in the Capitol tunnel after being named one of the winners of the annual Congressional Arts Competition. The painting’s detractors were able to convince Judge Bates the art violated the bylaws of the competition, banning “subjects of contemporary political controversy,” or of “sensationalistic or gruesome nature.”
According to Bates, such rules “set up a hierarchy of decision-making authority with respect to content suitability: House members, by whatever method of judging they choose, select one winning piece from among the multiple works submitted to represent the district, but their choice may be overruled by the AOC if it concludes that the work does not meet the suitability guidelines.”
Though Clay argued on behalf of the First Amendment rights of a U.S. citizen, Bates’ ultimate ruling declared his status within the government providing such inherent rights was not out of line in removing the painting.
“In this case, Clay’s decision was overruled by the entity at the top of this decision tree, making his objections irrelevant for purposes of the government speech analysis.”
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