NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A New Orleans resident who has been threatened with a fine and jail time if he does not remove a mural depicting a notorious comment made by President Donald Trump sued the city Tuesday for constitutional violations.
In a federal complaint filed on his behalf by Bruce Hamilton of the American Civil Liberties Union, Neal Morris says that before he had the mural painted on his property he asked the city for guidance on navigating municipal ordinances and received no reply.
Having received no guidance, Morris says, he went ahead and had the mural painted. In response, the city sent him a letter stating he was in violation of a city ordinance and threatened Morris if he did not take the mural down in the next 14 days.
Morris contends the cited ordinance does not exist.
The mural presents an excerpt from a quote from Trump from the so-called "Access Hollywood" tape that emerged shortly before the 2016 election, using images instead of certain offensive words: “I moved on her like a … She’s now got big phony … and everything. I just start kissing them. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a … they let you do it. You can do anything grab them by the ….”
Morris’s complaint says New Orleans requires “advance review and approval” of murals by city officials, but that city standards for such approvals do not exist.
Following news coverage of the mural, Morris received a letter from the New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits that said he had violated a zoning ordinance and ordered him to get rid of the mural or face legal action, including “a maximum fine or jail time,” the complaint says.
The letter said city code requires that all proposed murals be subject to “advance review and approval by the board of murals review prior to issuance of a permit.” Additionally, it said, a mural in an historic district or in an historically-designated structure requires approval from the Historic District Landmarks Commission or Vieux Carré Commission before its review by the Design Advisory Committee.
Further, the letter “charged Morris with violation of Section 12.2.4(8) of the CZO. [City Zoning Ordinance] 20. This section does not exist,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit goes on to say that the city zoning ordinance also does not include a section titled “Prohibited Signs — Historic District,” as the letter stated, and doesn’t “contain a blanket prohibition on murals in residentially zoned historic districts” either.
Jane Johnson, interim executive director of ACLU of Louisiana, said in a statement Tuesday that Morris’s “mural is a constitutionally-protected form of free expression – a right guaranteed to every American by the First Amendment.”
“Forcing artists and their patrons to get permission from the government, pay exorbitant fees, and navigate an obscure bureaucratic process before they can express themselves on their own property is a totally unnecessary trampling of their First Amendment rights,” Johnson continued.
Morris’s lawsuit calls New Orleans’ city mural ordinance “a multipronged assault on the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”
To obtain approval of a mural, it says, New Orleans residents must pay $500 and submit “extensive documentation that is subjected to undefined review, using unspecified standards, by undesignated officials, for an indefinite period of time.”
“Over the years I have been happy to give street artists a platform for their work,” Morris said in a statement, “but the city’s permit process is so complex, so onerous, and so arbitrary that even city officials themselves don’t seem to understand it.”
“Artists who want to create art on their own property shouldn’t have to wait around while a bunch of government bureaucrats decide whether they think a sketch is aesthetically pleasing,” Morris continued. “Yes, occasionally we will be confronted with art we find objectionable, but that is preferable to living in a city where bureaucrats decide what we see.”
The ACLU of Louisiana says the city’s permit requirements constitute unconstitutional restrictions on freedom of speech and calls the permit approval process “opaque, selectively enforced, and lacking any clear standards.”
Morris’s lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the city from forcing him to remove the mural.
The suit points to other murals in the city, for instance one painted by Yoko Ono on the side of the Ogden Museum of Art last fall without the museum first obtaining a permit. Another mural, on the side of a downtown firehouse, was also painted without a permit and no ordinance violation has since been issued, the lawsuit says.
“The above-cited provisions demonstrate the City’s unconstitutional, contentbased review of artistic works to determine beforehand whether murals will be permitted,” the lawsuit says.
The New Orleans City Planning Commission did not immediately reply Tuesday to an email seeking specifics on zoning ordinances and comment on the lawsuit.