Heard on the Hill

Clay: Taking Down Ferguson Painting is ‘Unconstitutional’

Missouri congressman will keep controversial painting in his office

Reps. Cedric Richmond, far left, and William Lacy Clay, center, continue to defend a Missouri student's painting. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. William Lacy Clay said the taking down of a Capitol high school art competition painting of police-community relations in Ferguson, Missouri, is unconstitutional.

After a week of hanging and unhanging, the painting was removed from the Cannon tunnel on Tuesday.

In a statement, Clay, a Missouri Democrat, blasted the Architect of the Capitol for siding with Republicans.

“By his unprecedented and unconstitutional action, following criticism of the artwork by Speaker [Paul D.] Ryan and several GOP members, the Architect of the Capitol acted to suppress the free speech rights of my constituent,” the congressman said. “They have also sent a chilling message to young Americans that their voices are not respected, their views are not valued, and their freedom of expression is no longer protected in the U.S. Capitol.” 

The painting by a former St. Louis high school student, which depicts police officers as animals, was the subject of a tug of war between Democrats and Republicans last week, which involved four GOP members on three different occasions taking the painting down and bringing it to Clay’s office.

[Controversial Ferguson Painting Removed From Display for Third Time]

“The assertion that the painting did not comply with the rules of the Congressional Art Competition is arbitrary and insulting,” Clay said.

The painting was ruled to be in violation of House Office Building Commission rules after Washington Republican Rep. Dave Reichert wrote a letter last week to Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers. Last Thursday, Ryan called for the painting to be removed, referring to it as“disgusting” on a radio show.

[Ryan Calls Ferguson Painting ‘Disgusting’]

Clay said it will hang it in his Capitol Hill office, for now.

“I plan to seek a reversal of the architect’s determination in short order. Supreme Court precedent clearly falls on the side of artistic freedom as protected speech,” he said.

Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that the removal shows that “politics has yet again trumped common sense.”

“Rather than engage in a thoughtful dialogue about what would motivate an 18-year-old to express himself in this way, the Architect of the Capitol and congressional leaders have chosen to exercise their power to suppress a child’s free expression,” the Louisiana Democrat said.

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