Judge Rejects Request to Rehang Painting Depicting Police as Animals on U.S. Capitol Grounds

A federal judge rejected a request to rehang a high school artist's controversial painting in the U.S. Capitol.

The architect of the Capitol removed "Untitled #1" from Capitol grounds in January. The painting depicts police officers as animals brandishing firearms.

The painting's removal stirred a raging dispute on Capitol Hill earlier this year. It was removed multiple times, without permission, by members of Congress and rehung by Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who represents the district in which the student painter lives.

The architect of the Capitol, who oversees the high school art competition in which the painting was submitted, ended the dispute by ruling the painting formally removed, sparking a federal lawsuit by Clay and the student painter against the Office of the Architect of the Capitol.

In court filings defending his decision, Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers revealed he "informally conferred" with an acting provost of the Smithsonian Institution and the director of the American Folk Art Museum before determining the painting failed to comply with suitability guidelines for the high school art competition.

U.S. House leaders were asked to formally vote to support the painting's removal, Ayers said in his filings to the judge. The U.S. House Building Commission, which consists of House Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, voted in February to uphold his decision, Ayers said.

In his ruling, the judge wrote that while the painting was removed because of its viewpoint, he agreed with Ayers argument that the case involves government speech, so no First Amendment free speech rights are at stake.

The I-Team's review of court records shows U.S. House administrators previously removed a high school art competition work in 1989. In that case, the art piece chosen by a Cleveland-area member of the U.S. House was later found to have been a copy of a professional photograph featured in an April 1989 issue of Vogue magazine.

In his court filings, Ayers said his office received no other complaints about any other art pieces in the 2016 competition besides the removals and protests over "Untitled #1."

Clay and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) sent a letter to Ayers asking he return the painting to its position in the Cannon House Office Building tunnel.

"In America, we don't arrest artwork," the congressmen said in their letter.

The high school student's painting "appears to be influenced by Picasso's violent dreamscape in 'Guernica' and George Orwell's dystopian parable 'Animal Farm,'" they said.

The congressional high school art competition was launched in October 1981 by former U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill. In a letter authorizing the project, O'Neill said, "The tunnels could benefit from aesthetic enlivenment," according to congressional records reviewed by the I-Team.

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