Much Ado About CENSORED

The ACLU is suing the City of New Orleans.

Over this mural.

That contains a quote from our current president.

New Orleans real estate developer Neal Morris had the mural painted on one of his commercial buildings last fall by artist Cashy D. Within days, Morris received a letter from the city that said he had violated a nonexistent ordinance. He had also neglected to seek permits from a “Board of Murals” that doesn’t seem to exist, either. And he would be subject to “a maximum fine or jail time for each and every day the violation continues plus court costs.”

The letter specified the lines and items in the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance violated by the mural, helpfully referring him to the section titled “Prohibited Signs — Historic District.”

Except there’s no such section. The lines and items don’t exist.

Wherefore art thou, mural permit?

The letter also pointed out that “murals shall not be permitted in any residentially zoned historic district”. Though there isn’t any prohibition like this on record, does the city call it a sign or a mural? Wouldn’t those two items have different approval standards and procedures?

After sending a letter asking for clarification, Morris received no response from the city. He did, however, do a bit of his own research. His “public” mural (on his private property) was supposed to have had a $500 fee and a “building permit master application” submitted to the mysterious Board of Murals. Who’s on this board? What are their standards? Whose work was approved in the past? How long until a decision is reached? Nobody seems to know.

But that $500 goes somewhere, and it might eventually help the nebulous Board of Murals to someday approve a mural. They would then pass the application on to the City Planning Commission. The City Planning Commission, if it likes the proposal, may then pass the application on to the Design Advisory Committee. And finally, at some point, City Council has the final say.

But the plans were on display…

“It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.'”

Goodness, how did murals like Yoko Ono’s go up in the same city so quickly last fall if they had to pass through such an arduous process?

[Ron Howard voice] Answer? They didn’t.

The ACLU’s suit argues that the city’s process for granting mural permits requires government approval, in advance, that applies “unspecified standards, by undesignated officials, for an indefinite period of time.” Alongside the considerable fee requirement, it constitutes “a multipronged assault on the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” the lawsuit said.

In a public statement, ACLU interim executive director Jane Johnson wrote, “This mural is a constitutionally-protected form of free expression – a right guaranteed to every American by the First Amendment. 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.”

In the meantime, the mural has been draped with a fabric cover. The original artist, Cashy D, stamped a white sheet repeatedly with the word “CENSORED” and his signature.

Acknowledging that the words on display might be seen as distasteful, Morris said in a statement. “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.”

A little something extra

Lagniappe: Read a bit about the fraught relationship between the city, its artists, and the tourism that supports them both. (And this doesn’t even get into the tarot card readers that show up in the evenings.)

Doubleplus Lagniappe: Since we’re science-y, research-y types, a longer dissertation and some more research on how art works in the city.

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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