Leonard Peltier and Public Displays of Art—The Government Taking Sides on Whose Paintings are Shown Stirs Up First Amendment Problems
Whatever one’s opinion about [Peltier], however, arguably the most consistent thread in First Amendment case law is that the right exists precisely to protect those with whom the government disagrees or finds unfavorable. From here it looks like the State of Washington has neglected to do just that.
An exhibition in Washington (state) that included art by a number of Native Americans, including Leonard Peltier, has provoked an outcry that may have Constitutional dimensions that went unconsidered. Peltier is a controversial Native American activist who was convicted of murdering in 1975 two FBI agents, Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams. His conviction has long been a Rorschach Test for responses to Native American activism and the federal government’s response—Peltier has strenuously insisted he is innocent, and the FBI has adamantly maintained he was properly convicted. This has now raised its head in the realm of the public display of art, and whether the government may, or should discriminate among artists. After an outcry about the inclusion of Peltier’s art by a number of current and retired law enforcement officials, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries has announced that it will remove Peltier’s paintings from the display that marked Native American Indian Heritage Month there, and has apologized. Yet regardless of one’s opinion if Peltier’s guilt or innocence, the government has stepped in a First Amendment quagmire when it made a public forum available for expression and then removed the expressive work of only one person because of who he is. The First Amendment, after all, acts to protect expression regardless of popularity, indeed, particularly so. It is hard to argue that his work was removed for any of the reasons that courts generally permit restrictions on speech in the various kinds of public forums. It remains to be seen whether Peltier will object on those grounds.