NEW YORK—A diverse group of arts and free expression organizations, including PEN America, filed a “friend-of-the-court” brief late last week arguing that the decision by Congressional staff to remove a winning painting from the Congressional Art Competition’s display in the Capitol building—allegedly due to its depiction of police officers with animal characteristics—violated the First Amendment. The brief, filed in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, argues that the retroactive removal of the painting (officials removed it six months after it had been initially hung in the Capitol building following complaints from members of Congress) shows that the paintings was removed for political reasons, a clear violation of the free speech guarantee in the First Amendment. The work in question was painted by a student from Ferguson, Missouri, and showed police officers, one with the features of a warthog, arresting a youth depicted as a wolf during a civil rights protest. Ferguson has been a hotbed of protest against police brutality following the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in 2015.

After officials hung the winning painting in a Capitol hallway, Republican members of Congress repeatedly took it down and returned it to the office of Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Democratic member of Congress from Missouri who is also a plaintiff in the suit. Though the painting had hung undisturbed for months, following the take-downs the Architect of the Capitol, which maintains the Congressional grounds, removed the painting at the request of Speaker Paul Ryan, who claimed the painting violated a provision in the rules for the contest barring “exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or [of] a sensationalistic or gruesome nature.” The brief filed by the arts groups argues that such a rule is so vague as to provide little guidance on what is permitted or prohibited, also a clear constitutional violation.

“If the First Amendment stands for one thing, it’s that the government can’t censor art because it offends or provokes,” said Gabe Rottman, PEN America Washington director. “That’s exactly what happened here. The painting sat quietly for half a year until Fox News made it a political football. The Congressional Art Competition is meant to reflect the diverse voices of all Americans—from every political stripe. Members of either party can’t censor paintings because they fail to comport with their worldview.”


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: [email protected], +1.646.981.0685