Artists seek $200 million in lawsuit against New York City

Monday, March 23, 1998

After four years and 27 arrests, New York City artist Robert Lederman said he's ready to lash back at city officials for denying his right to sell his work in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On Friday, Lederman and three other artists filed a $200 million civil-rights lawsuit against the city, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the police and parks departments. Specifically, the lawsuit contends that a city permit policy limiting the number of vendors in front of the Met to 24 is unconstitutional. The policy went into effect March 1.

The lawsuit blames the dispute on Giuliani's zealous “quality-of-life” campaign. City officials said the permit policy was needed because the high number of artists displaying their work in the vicinity of the Met blocks sidewalk traffic in front of the museum.

“We want the entire nation to understand that, for Giuliani, 'quality of life' literally means a police state,” said Andrew Miltenberg, an attorney representing A.R.T.I.S.T. or Artists' Response to Illegal State Tactics.

The lawsuit also charges the city with ignoring a 1996 ruling of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. That ruling said the city could not require street artists to obtain permits before selling their work on sidewalks because such a requirement would violate their freedom of speech.

Lederman, who was a plaintiff in that case, said that Giuliani and city officials don't seem to understand the implications of the court ruling and the right of artists to peddle their work in front of the Met.

“Since money is all Giuliani and his backers understand, we need to send them a big enough bill to get their attention,” he said.

Lederman said Giuliani has become “a living caricature.” He noted that, in the past week, the mayor has proposed making it illegal to post leaflets on cars and to make speeches in Times Square.

“He just makes my job too easy,” Lederman said. “A few years ago when I started calling him Rudy 'Police State' Giuliani, most people thought, 'Isn't that a little extreme?' Now he's routinely compared to a dictator.”

But the parks department has said the court's ruling does not apply in this case because the policy affects artists exhibiting on park property, not on public streets. The department controls the sidewalk area around the museum because the building sits on Central Park property.

Museum officials, in a written statement, said that, while they support the parks department policy, they also support “the idea of giving as many different street artists as possible the opportunity to offer their works on the plaza in an orderly way.”

– The Associated Press contributed to this report