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Peggy Fontenot

Peggy Fontenot is a member of the Patawomeck Indian tribe from Virginia and an award-winning American Indian photographer and artist whose work has been on display at the Smithsonian as well as the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum.

Her jewelry was worn by supermodel Kathy Ireland when she appeared on the pages of Sports Illustrated.

But a federal lawsuit now has been filed on her behalf by the Pacific Legal Foundation because Missouri has barred her from advertising her artwork as “American Indian-made.”

The case is against Eric Schmitt, the attorney general in Missouri, who is enforcing a state law that allows recognition only for tribes officially recognized by the federal government.

That, PLF argues, “prevents an American Indian artist from talking truthfully about her art and, in turn, threatens her livelihood.”

Her tribe is recognized by Virginia but not the federal government, the complaint explains. Her lawsuit challenges the state law restriction as unconstitutional.

“I was born an American Indian, I’ve always been an American Indian, and I’ve always identified myself as such,” Fontenot said. “It’s my right to truthfully describe myself and my art. The law limits my speech, and it limits other artists and their speech. It’s a bad law.”

PLF attorney Caleb Trotter said said that by violating Fontenot’s First Amendment rights, “the law puts her livelihood at risk.”

“People have the right to truthfully tell people about who they are and what their products are. This law keeps Peggy from truthfully telling her customers about herself and makes it harder for her to sell her art,” he said.

It’s not the first time that such a restriction has been challenged. PLF said three years ago Fontenot successfully challenged a similar restriction in Oklahoma.

The civil rights complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Missouri.

“The right to truthfully describe and market one’s art is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” the filing charges.

The case seeks a ruling from the court that the Missouri law, which is relatively new, violates the Constitution by restricting speech.

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