NEW ORLEANS – Representing a New Orleans resident who has been ordered to remove a mural from his property or face possible jail time, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed a First Amendment lawsuit today arguing that the city’s murals-permit scheme violates the U.S. Constitution.
The mural depicts President Trump’s misogynistic comments recorded during a 2005 “Access Hollywood” segment, using images in place of certain words.
New Orleans requires murals to be subject to “advance review and approval” by city officials, but city standards for such approval do not exist. As a result, property owners like the plaintiff, Neal Morris, have to obtain the government’s permission to paint murals on their properties, but they have no guidance as to which murals are permissible and which are not.
“This mural is a constitutionally-protected form of free expression – a right guaranteed to every American by the First Amendment,” said Jane Johnson, ACLU of Louisiana interim executive director. “Forcing artists and their patrons to get permission from the government, pay exorbitant fees, and navigate an obscure bureaucratic process before they can express themselves on their own property is a totally unnecessary trampling of their First Amendment rights.”
Neal Morris had a mural painted on a property he owns at 3521 South Liberty Street.
“Over the years I have been happy to give street artists a platform for their work, but the city’s permit process is so complex, so onerous, and so arbitrary that even city officials themselves don’t seem to understand it,” said Morris. “Artists who want to create art on their own property shouldn’t have to wait around while a bunch of government bureaucrats decide whether they think a sketch is aesthetically pleasing. Yes, occasionally we will be confronted with art we find objectionable, but that is preferable to living in a city where bureaucrats decide what we see.”
Following news coverage of the mural, the New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits issued a letter accusing Morris of a zoning violation. The letter ordered him to remove the mural or face legal action, including “a maximum fine or jail time.”
The City Code requires that all proposed murals be subject to “advance review and approval by the board of murals review prior to issuance of a permit.” In addition, a mural in a historic district or on a historically designated structure requires approval of the Historic District Landmarks Commission or Vieux Carré Commission before its review by the Design Advisory Committee.
The ACLU of Louisiana argues that the city’s permit requirements constitute unconstitutional restrictions on freedom of speech. The lawsuit also asserts that the permit approval process is opaque, selectively enforced, and lacking any clear standards.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare the mural-permit scheme unconstitutional and block the city from enforcing it.