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Lawsuit Says Cleveland State Censored Sculpture Criticizing Trump

Lawless' sculpture, The Politician: A Toy, on Cleveland State University's campus. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Lawless' sculpture, The Politician: A Toy, on Cleveland State University's campus.

An artist is accusing Cleveland State University of censoring him by covering up a message criticizing President Trump that he added to his distinctive sculpture on campus.

Billie Lawless’ 40-foot-tall sculpture, The Politician: A Toy, depicts a head on a pair of wheels. On a fence surrounding the work are satirical messages, like “BORE THE PEOPLE” and “A THOUSAND POINTS OF SLIGHT.”

Last year, Lawless added a new phrase to the fence: “BUILD A WALL OF P-----,” a reference to Trump’s Access Hollywood remarks about groping women that emerged during the 2016 campaign. The words also refer to the hats worn by Women’s March demonstrators, Lawless’ attorney wrote.

Now, the blank side of a CSU homecoming banner blocks those words from view.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday, Lawless accuses CSU of violating his free speech rights by putting up the banner. The suit also says CSU retaliated against his protected expression by canceling the university’s contract with him.

Lawless’ attorney, Andy Geronimo with the Pattakos Law Firm, said the university hasn’t had a problem with messages Lawless has added in the past, such as “OBAMA SCARE.”

“They have not done—taken any action to censor his speech until he put up this reference to President Trump,” Geronimo said. “That leads us to believe that it was based on either the language he used or the viewpoint he used.”

Either, Geronimo said, would be a violation of Lawless’ free speech rights. The suit seeks $75,000 in damages. Geronimo also asked for a temporary restraining order to remove the banner while the lawsuit proceeds.

“The federal trial judge has denied the artist's Motion for Temporary Restraining Order. The University maintains that this is a contract matter, and stands firm in its position that it had a right to terminate the contract under its terms,” CSU Chief Marketing Officer Rob Spademan wrote in an email Friday morning. 

Lawless started work on the sculpture in 1976 and signed a contract with CSU in 2008 to move the piece to campus.

He added the words referencing Trump in March of last year, took them down in April and put them up again in October, according to the lawsuit.

CSU covered up the words with the banner a few days later and asked Lawless to take the phrase down, the lawsuit says. Lawless demanded that the university remove the banner, according to the lawsuit, and CSU canceled its contract with him in November.

Updated 1/25 with comment from Cleveland State University.

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.