Federal Architecture and First Amendment Limits
42 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2021 Last revised: 5 May 2021
Date Written: January 1, 2021
In December of 2020, President Trump issued an executive order on “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” a draft of which was leaked to the press in February under the title, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The order provided for updating the Guiding Principles of the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program to promote the use of “classical and traditional architectural styles,” which “have proven their ability to inspire…respect for our system of self government.” According to the order, there would have been a presumption against the use of such modern architectural styles as Brutalism and Deconstructivism in the construction of new federal public buildings, as these styles, according to Trump, fail to convey “the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of America’s system of self-government.” The order was troubling in that it proposed an official style that would have amounted to a censorship regime. Had it not been quickly rescinded by President Biden, the order would have deprived many architects and other interested parties of their First Amendment rights. One can also imagine a follow-up order calling for all new federal buildings—which belong to the public—to be decorated in twenty-four karat gold leaf and marble. The Supreme Court has not ruled on the question of whether architecture can be considered a form of constitutionally protected “speech.” However, as an expressive art, architecture should without question be among the forms protected by the First Amendment. In this article, I explore the First Amendment implications of Trump’s proposed order, the limits on the public’s ability to use the First Amendment to contest offensive government speech, and the ways in which existing law fails to reckon with the unique limitations and possibilities of architecture.
Keywords: Constitutional law, First Amendment, administrative law, architecture, art, art speech, President Donald J. Trump, government speech, brutalism, deconstructivism
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation