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Reps. Clay and Raskin to Speaker Ryan: Reject ‘Vigilante Censorship’ of Free Speech

January 11, 2017
Press Release

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-08) and Congressman William Lacy Clay (MO-01) today sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan urging him to not endorse the “vigilante censorship” of student art work in the Capitol. The full letter is attached and available here. Excerpts from letter are below.

In America, we don’t arrest artwork. As the Member who sponsored the art work at issue and a Member who is a First Amendment constitutional scholar, we write to express our grave concern that you may follow up on an act of vigilante censorship in the House of Representatives by taking formal steps to remove a painting by St. Louis Cardinal Ritter

College Prep High School Senior David Pulphus from display on a wall in the tunnel between the Cannon House Office Building and the Capitol.We believe that removing this work – which has been on display for six months as one of more than 400 winning high school entries selected from each congressional district through the annual Congressional Art Competition – would be a violation of First Amendment free speech rights. Removing Mr. Pulphus’s painting now…would be a naked and unprecedented act of censorship and thought control in the student arts program that would expose our body to serious First Amendment litigation.

It is well-established that the First Amendment protects not only verbal speech but artistic expression too. This is true even when such expression may be deeply offensive to some people.

Critics of Mr. Pulphus’s painting are calling for censorship precisely because it addresses a matter of public concern in a powerful and artistically vivid way. This is core artistic and political expression that the First Amendment protects.

The argument that the First Amendment does not protect Mr. Pulphus in this case because his painting violates the rules of the Congressional Art Competition or because the House may enforce decorum is unavailing. We have no power to censor citizens based on their political viewpoint in the name of official “decorum.” By opening the Cannon tunnel (not the floor of the House) to the display of privately-created artwork by high school students in each Member’s district, the House has made the Cannon tunnel a limited public forum for these purposes, reserving the tunnel for a particular group (in this case, the selected student artists whose work has been so installed) to express themselves.  As the Supreme Court has made clear, once the government “has opened a limited forum . . . [it] must respect the lawful boundaries it has itself set.  [It] may not exclude speech where its distinction is not reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum . . . nor may it discriminate against speech on the basis of its viewpoint.”

Please don’t undermine the Congressional Art Competition or violate the first Amendment in this way. In America, if you don’t like a painting you see in a display, you simply move on to the next one. You don’t take it down.

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Congressman Jamie Raskin represents Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, which includes Montgomery, Frederick, and Carroll counties. He is the Freshman Representative on the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, the Congressional Progressive Caucus Vice Chair and Liaison to New Members, and a Senior Whip for the House Democratic Caucus. Prior to his time in Congress, Raskin served in the Maryland State Senate. He has been a constitutional law professor for 25 years.