Mirth and Girth (painting)
Satire and Political Commentary
Civil Liability for Public Officials
The visual arts have long been a medium of political and social commentary. Included in this history is the satirical and often caustic depiction of public officials. The Supreme Court has held that graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate and, as such, receive the full protection of the First Amendment.
Under federal law, when a public official acts using his official authority (“under color of law”) and violates an individual’s constitutional rights, that individual may sue the official for monetary damages.
In May 1998, David Nelson, a student at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, submitted one of his paintings in the school’s annual competition. Entitled “Mirth and Girth,” the painting depicted recently deceased Chicago Mayor Harold Washington wearing women’s lingerie. When word of the painting reached Chicago City Council, three of the Council’s aldermen went to the Art Institute, took the painting from where it was displayed, and attempted to remove it from the campus.
Upon receiving a phone call from a fourth alderman, Chicago’s police superintendent ordered that the painting be taken into custody. David Nelson filed suit against the aldermen alleging their actions violated his First Amendment rights.
Was his art protected?
Citing the long history of the visual arts as a medium for political and social commentary, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the aldermen’s action of going onto private property to seize a painting simply because they found it offensive was a violation of the First Amendment. The City of Chicago settled the lawsuit by agreeing to pay $95,000 in attorney’s fees to Nelson’s lawyer.