The District's summer-long "Party
Animals" street exhibit of 200 cheerful donkeys and elephants must also include
a statue of a chained and weeping elephant, a federal judge has ruled, finding
that the city's arts commission unfairly rejected the somber entry by an animal
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that the D.C. Commission on the
Arts and Humanities allowed some groups to display donkey and elephant icons with
subtle or overt messages, but wrongly denied a design sponsored by People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that protested the conditions of circus
PETA's offering for the street art project is a teary-eyed elephant with his right front leg chained. He wears a blanket reading, "The CIRCUS is Coming, See SHACKLES -- BULL HOOKS -- LONELINESS All Under The 'Big Top.' "
In a 27-page opinion issued Wednesday and made public yesterday, Leon ordered that the shoulder-high polyurethane statue be displayed in a "prominent location," according to a copy of his ruling.
"The Court has concluded that the Commission's rejection of PETA's entrant was unreasonable because of its inconsistent treatment of other similarly noncompliant entrants," Leon wrote. "This inconsistency . . . constituted impermissible discrimination in violation of the First Amendment."
Matthew Penzer, PETA's legal counsel, said the ruling was a victory for both animal rights and free speech.
"Pain and fear is the bitter reality of the life of circus elephants," Penzer said. "A number of exhibits were clearly message-based, but for some reason the arts commission thought animal cruelty was not an appropriate topic to present to the public."
Anthony Gittens, executive director of the commission, had denounced the design as a "political billboard." Yesterday, he referred a reporter's phone call to the city's Office of the Corporation Counsel. A spokesman there declined to comment, saying the city is considering an appeal.
The Party Animals street art exhibit, which opened in April and continues through Labor Day, was patterned after humorous public art displays in other cities.
In Washington, the arts commission wrote that its display was to showcase "the whimsical and imaginative side of the nation's capital . . . to have FUN."
The commission called for donkeys and elephants -- the totems of the nation's two dominant political parties -- to be created and painted in a variety of lighthearted ways.
One donkey, dressed in medieval garb in front of the Folger Library on Capitol Hill, is dubbed "Donkey Ote," a pun on the literary character Don Quixote. Another donkey, located in the 300 block of Seventh Street NW, is painted with a scene from the film "Casablanca," a subtle play on the Spanish words for "White House."
But the federal city is the federal city, and two lawsuits were filed against the arts project.
The Statehood/Green Party said the display was overtly political -- and that as a prominent local party, its symbol, the sunflower, should also be included. A different federal judge rejected that bid earlier this summer.
In response to the PETA lawsuit, the arts commission said that the elephant design was too political and did not fit in with the "whimsical" nature of the display.
But the commission did allow the inclusion of an elephant decorated in a mosaic pattern with a panel reading, "Just Say No to Ivory" near its tusk. Also included was an elephant with pictures of children of different skin colors -- and the slogan, "Our Differences Make Us Strong." Another elephant design, patterned after the Monopoly board game, was called "GOPoly" and featured game board spaces labeled "$TAX CUTS$ and "In GOP we trust."
Leon ruled that those party animals also had "message" statements and that PETA's submission, though clearly intended to promote a cause, was no different.
PETA had submitted more graphic designs, including one with an elephant being prodded with a long hook.
The animal rights group had requested that its statue be set up at one of several proposed spots along Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. But there was no word yesterday on when or where the elephant would be displayed.
"The arts commission has the elephant icon," Penzer said. "As soon as they
release it to us, we'll paint it and it will be ready to be put on the street."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company