Late last year, New Orleans developer Neal Morris commissioned the local artist Cashy-D to paint a mural on his private property. On November 4, the artist completed the piece, which features text from the 2005 Access Hollywood recording, in which President Trump boasts of sexually assaulting women. In the mural, select nouns have been replaced by images, like emojis in a text message.
Ten days later, Morris received a letter from the city’s Department of Safety and Permits faulting him for not following the proper permit process, demanding the mural’s removal, and threatening a “maximum fine or jail time for each and every day the violation continues plus court costs as prescribed by law.” Now, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Morris against the City of New Orleans, alleging that it has violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
“The ideal outcome is for the City to scrap its burdensome, confusing (and unconstitutional) permitting process for murals,” Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Louisiana who is representing Morris, told Hyperallergic. “We don’t believe the government should get to decide what is art, which art is deserving of expression, and which art the public is allowed to see.”
The City’s current rules for mural permits demand that anyone putting up a mural provide not only information about the location and dimensions of the proposed public artwork, but also a “general drawing and written description of the type of mural.” Every proposal must be reviewed and approved by the Executive Director of the City Planning Commission and the Design Advisory Committee, with additional agencies weighing in if the proposed mural is to be located in a historic district.
A city spokesperson declined to comment, but told Hyperallergic that the city’s mural regulations have been enforced more than 20 times over the past six years.
“The City should not review murals for their artistic content at all, so it should do away with requirements that drawings be submitted in advance,” added Hamilton, the ACLU of Louisiana attorney. “Improvements include doing away with multiple levels of review, i.e. by different agencies or departments. All aspects of review should be clearly identified, not left open-ended and subjected to bureaucratic whim or discretion.”
While awaiting the outcome of the ACLU of Louisiana’s legal action, Morris has responded to the city’s threats by covering up the mural with a tarp designed by Cashy-B and emblazoned with the word “CENSORED” in many different colors. He has also launched a petition and created a group, Mural Reform NOLA, calling for an overhaul of the city’s mural permit process.
“Colleagues told me to brace myself for criticism but instead everyone from New Orleans City Council Members to street art advocates in Bushwick are reaching out with encouragement,” Morris told Hyperallergic in an email. “The general consensus is the problem is not the First Amendment to the constitution but a city bureaucracy that values process over artistic freedom.”
Morris’s lawsuit cites other recent murals in New Orleans that do not appear to have gone through the same permit process, or not as rigorous a permit process, including one by Yoko Ono that was painted on the exterior of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as part of the Prospect.4 triennial. Another adorns a firehouse in downtown New Orleans. If these murals were exempt from the process or subject to a less stringent process, they “demonstrate the City’s unconstitutional, content-based review of artistic works to determine beforehand whether murals will be permitted,” the lawsuit says.
“New Orleans is a city that celebrates difference and our mural ordinance should reflect this,” Morris wrote in a blog post on the ACLU of Louisiana website. “This is an opportunity for the City of New Orleans to be a progressive leader in how we treat artists. Let our revised ordinance be a model for other cities.”