Representative William Lacy Clay (D–Missouri) filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against the Architect of the US Capitol, Stephen Ayers, over the removal of a painting of a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, from a hallway between the Capitol Building and Longworth House Office Building. Clay alleges that the work’s removal constitutes a violation of the 1st Amendment rights of the artist, former St. Louis high school senior David Pulphus.

“David’s painting was wrongly disqualified and removed from the public exhibit at the direction of the Architect of the Capitol, who shamefully chose to retroactively censor and suppress Mr. Pulphus’s artwork in response to the enormous political pressure he experienced from the Speaker of the House and certain right-wing media outlets,” Clay said yesterday outside a courthouse in Washington, DC. “This case is truly about something much bigger than a student’s painting: it is about defending our fundamental 1st Amendment freedoms, which are currently under assault in this country.” The office of the Architect of the Capitol is in charge of maintaining and preserving the buildings, gardens, monuments, and artworks on Capitol Hill; Ayers was appointed to the position by Barack Obama in 2010.

The work — which depicts a protest scene in the community where 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in 2015 — hung without incident in the Capitol Hill facility for seven months, alongside other winners of the annual Congressional Art Competition. Last month, however, several Republican lawmakers sought its removal because of the artist’s portrayal of two police officers as wild boars — mischaracterized as pigs by many media outlets and critics. “This painting … was a slap in the face to the countless men and women who put their lives on the line everyday on behalf of our safety and freedom,” Congressman Dave Reichert (R-Washington) told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The untitled painting was removed and rehung at least three times over the course of a week. In mid-January, Ayers intervened, after being petitioned by Reichert, and ordered its permanent removal on grounds that it violated the terms of the Congressional Art Competition. The work has since been hanging in Clay’s office.

“I am seeking an appropriate remedy through this federal litigation, and I’m proud to defend both the fundamental rights of my constituent and the 1st Amendment,” Clay said. “I am confident that justice will prevail.”

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...