Civil libertarians: Giuliani’s efforts threaten First Amendment

Thursday, June 4, 1998

Street artists ...
Street artists and food vendors protest New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's crackdown on sidewalk sales Wednesday, June 3, 1998, in New York.

While New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani claims his policies to polish the Big Apple are merely “quality of life” efforts, free-speech advocates say the leader of the nation's largest city has been sweeping the First Amendment off the streets as well.

Six months into his second term, Giuliani's administration is marked by routine claims of First Amendment violations. These include:

  • Street artists and pushcart vendors who claim city permit policies have banned them from public sidewalks.
  • Taxi cab drivers who are suing Giuliani claiming the mayor used threats and intimidation in breaking up a planned protest last month. A federal judge forced the city to allow the protest last week.
  • Advertisers who say a city ban on tobacco billboards violates their free-speech rights.
  • Sex shop owners who say city zoning laws effectively ban them from New York's Times Square and shove them out to industrial areas on the outskirts of the city.

Only days after Giuliani's re-election victory last November, New York magazine identified itself in ads on city buses as “possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for.” Giuliani banned the ads until advised by a district court that his actions violated the First Amendment.

Giuliani's anti-ad efforts earned him a “Muzzle” award from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in April.

Robert O'Neil, the center's founding director, said he thought it “rather unusual” that a city like New York has been the continual focal point of First Amendment debates this year.

“It's a city where the political leadership and the courts and the populace by and large have been fairly lenient, fairly tolerant of a wider range of views and expression,” O'Neil said. “It's just an amazing number of different situations and contexts in which these issues have arisen.”

But Giuliani dismisses the criticism as being “like an opera that plays itself out over and over again. The excessive ideologies try to paint it in a certain direction, but these policies are reasonable, sensible things.”

“Three and four years from now, people will appreciate it,” he said.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert disagrees. In his column last week, Herbert described New York City as a place where “the curtain is being lowered on civil rights and civil liberties. … Giuliani rules by fear.”

Ron Kuby, a civil rights lawyer and activist said: “Increasingly, you see Mayor Giuliani handling dissent in a mean-spirited, bullying, autocratic fashion, and increasingly using police as a private mayoral army to target those who disagree with him.”

On Wednesday about 800 street vendors marched near City Hall to protest Giuliani's proposal to bar food vendors from 144 blocks of Manhattan and several streets in the financial district, Brooklyn and Queens.

Critics say the ban would hurt small businessmen and deprive workers and tourists of a quick and inexpensive way to eat. Because the ban extends to artists and book vendors, some raise First Amendment concerns.

Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union said he expects to sue the city because “there's practically no streets available for vendors.”

Giuliani defended the plan, saying, “Nobody will be out of business, presuming they follow the law. They cannot all vend exactly where they want to—that's basically the only way in which you are going to have a sensible, decent environment.”

Andrew Miltenberg, an attorney representing street artists in a $200 million civil lawsuit against the mayor and the city, said Giuliani disguises civil rights violations as quality of life initiatives.

“The guy is sweeping people off the streets, whatever he decides the offense of the day is,” he said.

This authoritarian image is one that Giuliani, intentionally or not, has helped to foster.

“Freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want,” Giuliani said in a 1994 speech. “Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it.”

Columnist Herbert claims that discontent over Giuliani's heavy hand is growing. “Not all New Yorkers revel in the trampling of the underdog. Despite the Mayor's best efforts, it's still not that kind of town.”

But statistics seem to show something else. A city of mostly Democrats, New York gave Giuliani, a Republican, a second term of office with an overwhelming majority of the vote. His job-approval rating hovers in the 60s in most polls.

New York is basking in the news that crime has dropped to 1960s levels, tourism is soaring again and at least one national poll listed it as the “most livable” city in the country.

Although a cartoonist has recently depicted Giuliani as a rampaging Godzilla crushing taxi cabs, street artists have displayed paintings of the mayor as Hitler and protesters have carried signs reading “Giuliani—Poster Boy for Repression,” the New York public seems largely unperturbed.

O'Neil admits that Giuliani's loose handling of the First Amendment seems, at best, to be “a vague concern” to New York citizens.

“New Yorkers would rather not read such things in the national media,” he said. “But it doesn't seem to have any political consequence. If it has had that consequence, it has been overshadowed by many other things.”

–The Associated Press contributed to this report.