In 2015, the Washington state Department of Labor & Industries showcased four paintings by imprisoned Native American artist Leonard Peltier in the agency's lobby. The paintings weren't, by themselves, controversial: The show included a portrait of a Native chief, a buffalo, and young man riding a calf. But the artist, Leonard Peltier, was controversial, and after receeving complaints, the Department of Labor & Industries opted to end the show two weeks early. Peltier sued, claiming that the state violated his First Amendment rights, and this week, U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma decided the suit can proceed, as the Seattle Times' Mike Carter reports.
Leonard Peltier has been imprisoned since 1977 when he was convicted of the murder of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams. The murders took place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where there had been mounting tension between activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM) and others in the tribe for some time. On June 26, 1975, there was a shoot-out between AIM activists and the FBI, who had come on to the reservation in unmarked cars: Both Coler and Williams, as well as AIM activist Joe Stuntz, were killed, and Peltier, himself an AIM member, was identified as a suspect in the shooting, along with two others, Robert Robideau and Dean Butler. Robideau and Butler were eventually found not guilty when their lawyers successfully argued they were acting in self-defense, but Peltier, who fled to Canada after the shoot-out, was extradited, tried, and convicted.
Peltier has long maintained his innocence, and has the support of Amnesty International as well as a number of prominent figures, including Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and film mogul David Geffen, who supported Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign over Hillary Clinton's because he was reportedly disillusioned that Bill Clinton had pardoned Mark Rich but not Peltier. (Obama, however, also declined to pardon Peltier when he was in office.) A former FBI agent also called for clemency for Peltier, and over 100,000 people signed an Amnesty International petition calling for his freedom. Three witnesses who placed Peltier at the crime scene later recanted and said they were threatened by the FBI.
Still, freedom seems unlikely for the 73-year-old Peltier, who was given two life sentences for the murders. But, thanks to Judge Leighton's ruling, he will see another day in court. “Freedom of speech, though not absolute, is protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance or unrest," Leighton wrote in his decision. "Appeasing those who disapprove of a speaker, or diffusing a controversy, are not compelling government interests."