A federal judge scheduled a hearing Monday on whether New Orleans regulations for murals violate the free speech of a landowner whose fence painting features infamous Donald Trump quotes from a 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording.
Landowner Neal Morris has asked Judge Martin Feldman to rule without trial, saying the regulations are clearly unconstitutional and the city should be barred from enforcing them. Feldman scheduled a hearing for 2 p.m. Monday.
In large capital letters with cartoons replacing four words, the mural on Morris’ property transcribes part of the future president’s recorded conversation, including a comment about a woman’s breasts and his boast about grabbing women’s genitals. It starts with, “I moved on her like a dog,” with a cartoon dog in place of the word.
The mural has been covered since the city served Morris with a notice about the regulations, first with a canvas sheet with the word “censored” repeated in bright colors, then with a plain canvas sheet.
City officials have said that courts have long approved reasonable restrictions on the manner in which free speech can be exercised. Permits are needed to be sure that a mural is not a commercial sign or graffiti, they said. To obtain a permit, applicants must submit sketches of the work they plan to display.
But in a lawsuit, American Civil Liberties Union attorneys representing Morris argue that the permits amount to “content-based restriction on speech” because applicants must pay the city and get artworks approved in advance. They also say the city isn’t clear about what would be forbidden. For instance, they wrote, it might forbid a tribute to New Orleans that includes “various tropes of the city’s culture, including beignets, a Saints helmet … and a bottle of Tabasco.”
The city’s lawyers said that would not be the case. In their written arguments, they presented a mock-up of a mural including such symbols, saying it “clearly falls within the … definition of a mural” because it would not be advertising or promoting “a commercial or economic transaction.”
The lawyers also presented hypothetical mock-ups that they said could easily be mistaken for ads or graffiti. One included a Tabasco bottle with the legend “Some like it hot,” something they said “would be viewed as an advertisement for a product that is readily available for purchase.” Another showed a bottle of nonbranded hot sauce and the same words. The city attorneys said such a mural could “easily be mistaken by a citizen or law enforcement officer as graffiti.”
After filing his lawsuit, Morris created the NOLA Mural Project, which matched artists who wanted to paint murals with nearly two dozen building owners who wanted murals. All were painted without permits.
The city revised its mural rules in June, cutting the cost from $500 to $50, and moving approval from the City Planning Commission to the Department of Safety and Permits — but still requiring sketches for approval, NOLA.com ‘ The Times-Picayune reported.