WASHINGTON (CN) – After sparking controversy with his contest-winning portrayal of civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, a student-artist has teamed up with a lawmaker to challenge the painting’s removal from the U.S. Capitol Building.
“Untitled #1” by David Pulphus was one of more than 400 artworks selected by members of Congress last year to hang in the heavily trafficked Cannon Tunnel of the U.S. Capitol Building as part of a high school contest that dates back to 1981.
Though winning artworks are supposed to hang in the Capitol for roughly 11 months, House Republicans had Pulphus’ piece removed and retroactively disqualified from the competition in January 2017.
“At bottom this is about vindicating Mr. Pulphus’ rights to free speech and expression,” attorney Leah Tulin with Jenner & Block said in a phone interview. “Activities that chill protected speech damage the foundations of our democracy,” Tulin added.
Pulphus challenged the painting’s removal as unconstitutional Tuesday in a federal complaint filed with the Missouri lawmaker who sponsored his painting, Rep. William Lacey Clay.
Though Clay did not participate himself in the selection process – assigning the task to panel of jurors from his district – the congressman announced Pulphus as the winner for his district this past May.
He described the painting as a tribute to social injustice and the tragic events in Ferguson, where a white police officer gunned down the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in 2014 but never faced prosecution.
The website Independent Review Journal drew public attention to Pulphus’ artwork in late December 2016, complaining that Pulphus depicted “the police officers as pigs with guns terrorizing a black neighborhood.”
A description of the painting in the complaint puts it more neutrally. “In the foreground of the painting, two police officers and a young man face each other in a standoff,” it says. “The officers have guns drawn and pointed at the young man. Both the young man and the officers have animalistic features: the officers appear to have the heads of warthogs, while the young man has the head of a wolf and a long tail. In the background, protesters look on, and another officer arrests another young man; none of these figures have animalistic features. A young black man, crucified on the scales of justice, hovers just above the fray.”
Clay and Pulphus brought their complaint against Stephen Ayers, the architect of the Capitol, who they say let political pressure force removal of the painting.
“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’ constitutional rights,” the complaint states.
Clay and Pulphus note that Ayers previously deemed the painting compliant with the competition, including the so-called suitability guidelines that it is now thought to violate.
“Untitled #1” is not the only politically themed artwork to have won the 2016 contest. Indeed another piece, “Beauty in the Struggle,” depicts a young black child in front of a Confederate flag. The complaint says he “is holding a yellow rose in one hand and has a broken chain around his other wrist.”
Before the AOC removed the Pulphus painting for good on Jan. 17, the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, House Republicans spent weeks taking down the painting unilaterally. Clay decried at least one of the prior removals as an “act of vigilante censorship.”
On the same day that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called the Pulphus painting “disgusting” in a radio interview, someone taped a “Blue Lives Matter” flag above the artwork.
Clay says the letter from Ayers says the AOC determined, after consulting with industry experts, that the painting violated the prohibition “of artwork depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature.”
“Given that the AOC reviewed and approved the painting in May of 2016 and reversed his initial decision only after considerable political pressure, it is clear that Untitled #1 has been removed on account of its content and its perceived viewpoint,” the complaint says.
Clay and Pulphus want an injunction that will require the Architect of the Capitol to reinstate his painting as a winner, and rehang it the Cannon Tunnel beneath the Capitol.
Their attorney said the lawsuit has wide-reaching free-speech implications. “It’s also important to send a message to young people that they have First Amendment rights just like the rest of us do,” Tulin said.
Pulphus, 19, graduated last year from Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School in St. Louis.
The Capitol Visitor’s Center, which houses the Architect of the Capitol, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.