Upon invitation by the city hall art committee, Mrs. Henderson submitted a number of oil paintings for display in the Rotunda of Murfreesboro City Hall. All of the submitted pieces were placed in the Rotunda for display, including a painting of a partially nude woman (see below). After receiving a complaint that display of the painting constituted sexual harassment, the city attorney determined that, though the sexual harassment complaint was unlikely to be successful, the painting did violate the city’s sexual harassment policy because it was sexually explicit. The city attorney removed the painting from the Rotunda. A new policy for the art display in the Rotunda was adopted to prohibit pieces of art that infringe upon the city’s employee policies. Henderson claims that her First Amendment to freedom of expression was violated with the removal of her painting and that the new art policy also violated the First Amendment.
The court ruled that the painting was protected under the First Amendment, but the level of protection depends on the type of forum in which it is displayed. The Rotunda at the city hall is a limited public forum because the art committee invited submission of artworks and opened the Rotunda for display of the art. In a limited public forum, the government may constitutionally enforce reasonable time, place, and manner regulations which may be content-based as long as the restrictions are narrowly drawn to further a compelling state interest. The removal of the painting was indeed content-based and was not done in accordance with a narrowly drawn regulation. The court found the initial restrictions on art submission and display were not narrowly drawn: the removal of the painting was an arbitrary decision made by the city without the guidance of a policy. Therefore, the removal of the painting violated Henderson’s First Amendment rights. The court was unable to rule on the constitutionality of the new art policy because this policy was enacted after Henderson’s rights were violated and therefore, she was not directly hurt by it.
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