A property owner in New Orleans is being threatened with fines and even jail time for hosting a mural visually recreating a famous—and famously crass—quote by President Donald Trump about grabbing women by their lady parts.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Louisiana has filed suit to protect Neal Morris, the property owner, from any punishment from the City of New Orleans for not getting the city's approval to paint some controversial speech on a mural on a warehouse he owns.
According to the ACLU complaint, Morris commissioned a mural on his property last November that partly illustrated parts of the now-well-known quotes by Trump recorded by Access Hollywood: "I moved on her like a bitch. She's now got big phony tits and everything. I just start kissing them. I don't even wait. And when you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy."
Prior to commissioning the mural, Morris visited City Hall in New Orleans to find out what their approval process was for murals. According to the ACLU lawsuit, the city was unable to provide the information he was seeking, so he went forward with the mural.
After the mural went up, he started getting press coverage. That's when he got a threatening letter from the City of New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits. The letter informed him that his mural violated city zoning laws. Murals were not permitted in residential historic districts. The letter further threatened him with possible fines and jail time for each day the mural remained up.
However, the ACLU says the section of code Morris is accused of violating does not actually exist. The city's zoning laws do not have a section on prohibited signs and does not have a blanket prohibition on murals in historic districts. Morris sent a letter to the city asking for clarification and received no response.
The city does have rules for putting up murals, even if they apparently couldn't explain them to Morris when he asked for them. The rules themselves present other legal issues. The city requires murals to go through an extensive advance review process that includes approval of the contents of the mural. Failure to properly navigate the city's approval process can lead to minimum fines of $500 and a maximum of 150 days of jail time.
The ACLU argues that "any person who exercises her right to free expression by painting a mural on her property—without first obtaining government permission—faces criminal punishment. This is, by definition, a prior restraint on speech." They further note that the mural regulations are selectively enforced. A mural by Yoko Ono was recently painted on the side of a museum without going through any sort of permitting process.
The ACLU also argues this permitting system lacks due process, has undefined standards, and lacks a transparent process by which people get murals approved. Essentially the lawsuit argues that people who want to put up murals are subject to the whims of unaccountable government officials. And they treat murals differently from signs so they can charge more money ($500 vs. $265).
Morris and the ACLU are seeking an injunction stopping New Orleans from enforcing the mural permitting process.
This is far from the first time that sign permitting processes have been used to try to censor politically oriented speech or art. The City of St. Louis tangled with Jim Roos and tried to use sign ordinances to make him remove a massive mural on the side of a building protesting the abuse of eminent domain. Ultimately the city lost the battle when a federal appeals court ruled in 2011 that their restrictions were "impermissibly content-based."