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St. Louis student's artwork brings police complaints in D.C.

An acrylic painting by David Pulphus when he was a student at Cardinal Ritter College Prep high school in St. Louis is stirring up controversy after its display in the U.S. Capitol in Washington. The painting, "Untitled #1,'' in May had won an annual contest sponsored by U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. It is a symbolic representation of injustice, inequality and the unrest in Ferguson, and, among other things, depicts police officers as animals. Photo courtesy of Clay's office.

Updated at 12:45 p.m. to include suit's aims. 

WASHINGTON • Rep. William Lacy Clay plans to file a federal lawsuit here Tuesday alleging that the constitutional rights of former St. Louis student David Pulphus were violated when the Architect of the Capitol ordered the removal of Pulphus’s painting from a congressional display.

“Seven months after being displayed as part of a public exhibit, a deluge of alternative right media, aided by the unauthorized actions of certain reactionary members of Congress, deprived Mr. Pulphus of his constitutionally guaranteed 1st Amendment Right of Free Expression,” a statement from Clay’s office to the Post-Dispatch said.

Clay, D-St. Louis, “is seeking an appropriate remedy through this federal litigation and he is proud to defend both the fundamental rights of his constituent and the 1st Amendment.”

The suit will name Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers as the defendant. The suit will ask for "declaratory and injunctive" but not damages, Steven Engelhardt, a Clay spokesman said Monday. 

The painting, “Untitled #1,” is by former Cardinal Ritter student Pulphus, and was declared the winner of a congressional art competition in Clay’s 1st Missouri congressional district. It hung for several months among hundreds of other winners from around the country, until conservative bloggers and a FOX TV host said it depicted police as pigs and demanded its removal.

Several members of Congress, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., took it down, only to have Clay return it to the wall.

Last month, responding to a letter from Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., that the painting violated rules of the art competition designed to avoid controversial topics, the Architect of the Capitol ordered its removal from the wall of a tunnel connecting the Capitol with House office buildings. It has been hanging in Clay’s congressional office here since.

Critics say "Untitled #1"depicts police officers as pigs and distorts the facts of the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Clay and other defenders say that it is a legitimate First Amendment expression of a young black man who grew up amid high-profile cases of young black men killed by police and that the Capitol should be the last place where that expression is censored.

Reichert, a former sheriff’s deputy, said then that “with any competition there are rules, and these rules exist for a reason. This painting hung in clear defiance to those rules and 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.”

Hunter, an ex-Marine, told the Post-Dispatch that “it kind of strikes the same nerve as when the guys came home from Vietnam, and they called them baby killers.” He said Capitol Hill police personally thanked him for removing it. 

But Clay said he will argue in his lawsuit that the painting “was initially subjected to the same review and approval process as the other 400-plus winning student entries in the 2016 Congressional Art Competition.”

He said his lawsuit, filed pro-bono by two lawyers, will seek “an appropriate remedy through this federal litigation.” Clay’s statement said that “he is proud to defend both the fundamental rights of his constituent and the 1st  Amendment.”

Pulphus has since gone on to college, and has not talked to the media.

In an opinion piece submitted to the Post-Dispatch last month by Pulphus and Etefia Umana, the two wrote: “Art imitates life, but no critic has asked the fundamental question the painting begs: Why would a young student with hope, promise and purpose perceive our community and the police in such a manner?

“The officials did not take into account the role militarization of policing has played in African-American communities (including Ferguson and St. Louis) or the way 'stop and frisk' and pretext stops invade the privacy of African-American citizens. These are things that we have personally experienced.”

Clay’s lawyers in the suit will be Leah J. Tulin, of the D.C. office of Jenner & Block, LLP, a former clerk in the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.; and James M. Williams, a personal injury and business litigator with the New Orleans firm Chehardy, Sherman, Williams.

Clay plans to announce filing of the suit Tuesday on the steps of the federal courthouse on Constitution Avenue. He is expected to be joined by freshman Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who was a constitutional law professor before being elected to Congress.

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.