Judge bars 'Cops-as-Pigs' painting from Capitol walls

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A federal judge has rejected a request to rehang a controversial painting depicting police officers as animals that drew national headlines earlier this year after Republican lawmakers repeatedly removed it from a display inside the U.S. Capitol complex.

Saying the court was "sympathetic to plaintiffs given the treatment afforded" to the painting, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates declined to issue a preliminary injunction requested by Rep. Lacy Clay that would allow the painting to hang in the Cannon Tunnel between the Capitol and a congressional office building while a lawsuit over its disposition is resolved.

"There is little doubt that the removal of the painting was based on its viewpoint," Bates said in his ruling, dated Friday. But he concluded that the government's editorial decision to select and present the artwork meant that the display amounted to government speech and was, therefore, not subject to First Amendment protections.

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Controversial 'Cops-as-Pigs' painting
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Controversial 'Cops-as-Pigs' painting
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 10: A painting by Missouri high school student David Pulphus appears after it was rehung, January 10, 2017. The painting was removed from the Congressional Art Competition display in Cannon tunnel by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 10: Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., passes by the painting of Missouri high school student David Pulphus after it was rehung, January 10, 2017. The painting was removed from the Congressional Art Competition display in Cannon tunnel by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 10: Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., left, and Hank Johnson, D-Ga., speak in front of the painting by Missouri high school student David Pulphus, after it was rehung, January 10, 2017. The painting was removed from the Congressional Art Competition display in Cannon tunnel by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 10: From left, Reps. Cedric Richmond, D-La., Alma Adams, D-N.C., William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., John Conyers, D-Mich., and Hank Johnson, D-Ga., speak in front of the painting by Missouri high school student David Pulphus after it was rehung, January 10, 2017. The painting was removed from the Congressional Art Competition display in Cannon tunnel by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 10: Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., passes by the painting of Missouri high school student David Pulphus after it was rehung, January 10, 2017. The painting was removed from the Congressional Art Competition display in Cannon tunnel by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 10: A painting (R) is seen on the U.S. Capitol walls after it was rehung by members of the Congressional Black Caucus after it was removed by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) on Friday because he found it offensive on January 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. The painting is part of a larger art show hanging in the Capitol and is by a recent high school graduate, David Pulphus, and depicts his interpretation of civil unrest in and around the 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 10: Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) speaks to the media after helping rehang a painting (seen behind him) on the U.S. Capitol walls after it was removed by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) on Friday because he found it offensive on January 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. The painting is part of a larger art show hanging in the Capitol and is by a recent high school graduate, David Pulphus, from Clay's district and depicts his interpretation of civil unrest in and around the 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Clay, a Missouri Democrat, filed the lawsuit along with the painting's artist, David Pulphus, who created the work for the Congressional Art Competition that takes place annually among high school students.

The picture was displayed for nearly seven months with little notice before some conservative news outlets reported on it, generating a number of complaints from lawmakers and police unions based on its content, which they believed was "anti-police."

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Michael Brown anniversary
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Michael Brown anniversary
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 08: Demonstrators march to mark the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown on August 8, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9, 2014. Brown's death sparked months of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson and drew nationwide focus on police treatment of black offenders. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 08: Demonstrators march to mark the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown on August 8, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9, 2014. Brown's death sparked months of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson and drew nationwide focus on police treatment of black offenders. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 08: Demonstrators march from the location where Michael Brown was shot and killed to Normandy High School where he was a student to mark the first anniversary of his death on August 8, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9, 2014. His death sparked months of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson and drew nationwide focus on police treatment of black offenders. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 08: Michael Browns Sr. touches a sign which honors his son, Michael Brown Jr., during a march from the location where Brown Jr. was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri to Normandy High Schoo,l where he was a student, to mark the first anniversary of his death on August 8, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9, 2014. His death sparked months of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson and drew nationwide focus on police treatment of black offenders. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 08: Demonstrators march from the location where Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed to Normandy High School where he was a student on August 8, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9, 2014. His death sparked months of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson and drew nationwide focus on police treatment of black offenders. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Demonstrators march during a solidarity march on August 8, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri. As the embattled community celebrates the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. by a Ferguson police officer, there are a wide range of social events and civil disobedience actions throughout the St. Louis, Missouri area. AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL B. THOMAS (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Brown Sr., father of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown Jr., takes stuffed animals to a makeshift memorial prior to a march of solidarity in Canfield Apartments on August 8, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. As the embattled community celebrates the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. by a Ferguson police officer, there are a wide range of social events and civil disobedience actions throughout the St. Louis, Missouri area. AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL B. THOMAS (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 08: Demonstrators march from the location where Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed to Normandy High School where he was a student on August 8, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9, 2014. His death sparked months of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson and drew nationwide focus on police treatment of black offenders. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Police officers watch as demonstrators march during a march of solidarity on August 8, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri. As the embattled community celebrates the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. by a Ferguson police officer, there are a wide range of social events and civil disobedience actions throughout the St. Louis, Missouri area. AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL B. THOMAS (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Brown Sr., father of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown Jr., takes stuffed animals to a makeshift memorial prior to a march of solidarity in Canfield Apartments on August 8, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. As the embattled community celebrates the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. by a Ferguson police officer, there are a wide range of social events and civil disobedience actions throughout the St. Louis, Missouri area. AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL B. THOMAS (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Brown, Sr.(R) father of slain 18 -year old Michael Brown Jr. speaks to the media prior to a march of solidarity at Canfield Apartments on August 8, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. As the embattled community celebrates the one- year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. by a Ferguson police officer, there are a wide range of social events and civil disobedience actions throughout the St. Louis, Missouri area. AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL B. THOMAS (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 07: A demonstrator holds American flags upside down as they protest in front of the police station to mark the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown on August 7, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9, 2014. Brown's death sparked months of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson and drew nationwide focus on police treatment of black offenders. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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It depicts police officers with the animalistic features of a pig or warthog along with symbolic elements of the 2014 shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., removed the painting on Jan. 6 and left it in Clay's office with a handwritten note complaining it did not comply with the competition's suitability guidelines.

The guidelines for the contest prohibit paintings "depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy" or those of a "sensationalistic or gruesome nature."

Clay rehung the painting, and it was removed twice more before Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers agreed it was unsuitable and ordered it taken down. The issue became a flashpoint of controversy between Republicans and the Congressional Black Caucus, and Clay, whose district includes Ferguson, filed a lawsuit along with Pulphus claiming viewpoint discrimination.

"Our nation was founded on the very principle of freedom of speech, and there are few places where that core freedom warrants greater respect than the U.S. Capitol," Clay and Pulphus said in a joint statement Tuesday. "We believe our Constitution simply cannot tolerate a situation where artwork can be removed from the Capitol for the first time ever as a result of a series of ideologically and politically driven complaints."

Clay and Pulphus said they intend to appeal the decision, but time is running out. The painting is only eligible to be hung in the Capitol until May 1 when the exhibit ends.

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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