Analysis: Free-speech implications of case involving St. Louisan’s artwork removed from US Capitol
In 2016, a painting by St. Louis high school student David Pulphus appeared in the U.S. Capitol alongside hundreds of other winning art competition entries. About seven months later, after pressure from a group of Republican lawmakers with backing from law enforcement, the artwork was removed from display.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-St. Louis) filed a lawsuit alleging the violation of the student’s First Amendment rights soon afterward. The painting, “Untitled #1,” was created following the police-shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the acrylic piece depicts law enforcement officers as animals.
Now the Pulphus v. Ayers case is headed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the implications with regard to free speech with Mark Sableman, a partner with Thompson Coburn LLP, and Chad Flanders, professor of law at Saint Louis University.
Sableman said the removal of “Untitled #1” was an unusual situation.
“The competition was open to all. The competition expected diversity. There were no hard and fast suitability requirements,” Sableman said. The painting was up for seven months before controversy erupted. From continued pressure, the Capitol architect Stephen Ayers said he would remove the painting.
“We call that a heckler’s veto. It’s a classic case of censorship; when something meets all the criteria, it fits within the competition, and it’s only [when] some particular person [who] doesn’t like that message claims that it has to come down, it comes down,” Sableman said.
Flanders said the government’s decision was based on the government speech doctrine – which allows the government to restrict free speech when it comes to speaking for itself. Ayers later found the artwork to be unsuitable and did not want the painting to be seen as a government message.
“The government’s position on appeals is basically ‘this isn’t a first amendment issue, this is our decision of what artwork we want to hang in our house,’” Coburn said.
When: 5:30 p.m. Monday, April 30, 2018
Where: Arcade Building Auditorium, Webster University Gateway Campus, 810 Olive Street, St. Louis, MO 63101