Judge keeps controversial police painting out of Capitol complex

Judge keeps controversial police painting out of Capitol complex
© Greg Nash

A federal judge on Tuesday rejected Rep. Lacy Clay's (D-Mo.) attempt to reinstall a constituent’s controversial painting depicting police officers as animals to the Capitol complex, prompting Clay to announce he will appeal the decision.

Clay and his constituent, David Pulphus, had filed a lawsuit in February against the architect of the Capitol for bowing to pressure from House GOP lawmakers and removing it from an underground tunnel connecting office buildings and the Capitol.

D.C. Federal Circuit Court Judge John Bates denied a preliminary injunction to restore the painting while the lawsuit proceeds. Clay and Pulphus will appeal that decision. 

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"Our nation was founded on the very principle of freedom of speech, and there are few places where that core freedom warrants greater respect than the U.S. Capitol,” Clay and Pulphus said in a joint statement.

“We believe our Constitution simply cannot tolerate a situation where artwork can be removed from the Capitol for the first time ever as a result of a series of ideologically and politically driven complaints.”

The architect of the Capitol had determined in January that the painting violated the rules of an annual high school art competition that gave the winner a place in the highly trafficked tunnel. The painting had been displayed for more than six months without controversy until conservative news outlets took notice of it in December.

Multiple House Republicans removed it from the wall, leading Clay to repeatedly put it back until it was permanently removed.

The architect of the Capitol cited House Office Building Commission rules that prohibit artwork of sensational nature or about contemporary political controversy. But Clay and Pulphus charged in the lawsuit that the painting had been approved before it was displayed in the Capitol complex, and that no other painting had been taken down prematurely since the art competition began in 1982.

The painting features a confrontation between a protester depicted as a black panther and a police officer that resembles a warthog. GOP lawmakers and police groups had taken offense at the painting's message, which was meant to be commentary on the frayed relations between law enforcement and the black community.

Clay’s district includes Ferguson, where a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager in 2014.

Stephen Ayers, the architect of the Capitol, argued that the display of the artwork amounted to “government speech,” therefore limiting the artist’s right to have his painting kept up.

Winners of the annual high school art competition are rewarded with the display of the work in the tunnel for one year. The amount of time left for the winners of the 2016 competition is running short.

The deadline for students to submit entries for this year is at the end of April.