A Mural Quoting Trump at His Most Profane Is Protected Speech, Judge Rules
New Orleans can't use zoning regulations to decide what counts as artistic expression.
A New Orleans warehouse owner may keep up a mural featuring an artist's interpretation of an infamously profane Donald Trump quote about grabbing women "by the pussy," a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
The lawsuit pit local warehouse owner (and regular Reason reader) Neal Morris against the City of New Orleans over the city's nebulous regulations of signs and artwork. In 2018, Morris permitted a street artist to paint a mural on his property featuring Trump's quote, recorded by Access Hollywood and released to the public during the 2016 campaign. The artwork (shown above) was mostly a direct quote, with a few of Trump's words—"tits," "bitch," "star," and "pussy"—replaced with pictograms.
Morris went to the city to request information about permitting before putting up the mural, but the city was unable to explain the process of getting authorization. So Morris went ahead and let the artist do his work.
Then the mural got media attention. In response, the City of New Orleans started sending letters to Morris, telling him the mural violated city zoning laws and threatening him with fines and possible jail time. With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Morris fought back, arguing that the mural was protected free speech and that the city's review process for getting a mural approved amounted to inadmissible content-based prior restraint.
Reason first noted the lawsuit in March 2018. In the past year, the City of New Orleans has attempted to amend its regulations to separate artistic expression from commercial speech and advertising. But the new rules still obligated people to submit their mural plans to the city, which would determine if the proposal was actually a "work of art." Morris and the ACLU argued that these new regulations still counted as prior restraint and were unconstitutionally vague about what counted as artistic expression, thus violating Morris' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman of the Eastern District of Louisiana agreed, granting Morris' motion for a judgment declaring the city's mural ordinance unconstitutional and blocking them from enforcing it.
Morris provided a copy of Feldman's ruling to Reason and clarified the conflict with the city in a brief phone interview. He noted (as did a city employee's testimony included in the judge's ruling) that the city had a practice of not enforcing any sort of mural regulations unless somebody complained. Morris figures that a neighbor complained, which prompted the media coverage and the city's response.
"If you only enforce [these regulations] when there are complaints what you end up with is a heckler's veto," Morris says. "There was a complaint about the pictogram of the boobs and a pussy hat. From what the artist was going for, I get it. Why is it okay for the president to say it and do these things, but if you quote it with a pictogram, that becomes obscene?"
As for the reason that he fought the city: "It's really about government restriction of speech in the age of Trump," Morris says. "Now more than ever we want to be careful about any encroachment on speech, even when well-meaning. What happens when it's not your friends in power?"
Morris agreed to cover the mural with canvas during the legal fight. Now that he's won, Morris says he actually hasn't decided whether he'll take the cover down.
"I may just paint over it," he says. "The artist got his message out and its purpose has been served."
Read the judge's ruling here: 2019.07.09 Feldman Order MSJ Morris v. New Orleans