Federal judge: NYC punished AIDS service group over criticism of mayor

Tuesday, November 16, 1999

NEW YORK — City officials tried to make an AIDS service group ineligible for millions of dollars in federal money because it had been critical of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a federal judge ruled.

In a ruling released on Nov. 12, U.S. District Judge Allen Schwartz found that city officials acted with “retaliatory intent” against Housing Works, a nonprofit group that operates two homes for homeless people with AIDS, mental illness and drug addiction.

Housing Works has been a relentless critic of Giuliani’s policies on AIDS. It has blocked rush-hour traffic on bridges and tunnels, interrupted news conferences of city officials and conducted sit-ins in city offices.

Housing Works claimed the administration had initially given it a favorable rating, making it likely to qualify for grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency awards grants through a ranking system established by the city.

Housing Works said top city officials, angered by the group’s stance against the mayor, downgraded it, effectively blocking $2.4 million to cover three years of operating expenses.

Schwartz issued an injunction ordering the city to restore the original rating. Schwartz also barred the city from punishing the group for its “criticism of the Giuliani administration or its advocacy on behalf of persons with HIV or AIDS.”

The judge found that Housing Works had shown that its conduct was protected by the First Amendment and that the city’s conduct was substantially motivated by Housing Work’s free speech.

Schwartz ruled that Housing Work’s conduct was protected by the First Amendment because its speech was clearly a “matter of public concern.”

The judge also ruled that Housing Works “has established a clear and substantial likelihood that it will be able to demonstrate at trial that plaintiff’s exercise of its free speech substantially caused defendants’ act of reranking Housing Works’ application.”

According to Schwartz, Housing Works “has shown well-documented circumstantial evidence of a retaliatory motive.” The judge found that the defendants had engaged in a “pattern of antagonism” against Housing Works for “the aggressiveness … of [its] protest activities.”

Meanwhile, a leading critic of City Hall held a news conference on Nov. 14, saying that Giuliani has squandered at least $5 million of taxpayers’ money on “frivolous lawsuits” designed to muzzle opponents of the mayor and his policies.

In a letter to the mayor, released at the news conference, Public Advocate Mark Green said Giuliani had lost some 22 First Amendment or freedom-of-information cases against his foes.

Among them, Green said, were the mayor’s attempts to revoke city funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of an exhibition he deemed blasphemous, and one to block federal funds from going to Housing Works.

“Many egregious examples of government-by-enemies-list have contributed to a ‘chilling effect’ on discourse and debate in our city,” said Green, adding that he would seek an accounting of money spent on “costly failures” and alleged abuses of power. The public advocate is an elected official who acts as an ombudsman for city residents.

Green’s complaint echoed previous attacks on the mayor by Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a prominent Giuliani foe.

“The mayor has not seen Mark Green’s letter, which was sent yesterday and is merely an extension of a Norman Siegel press release,” said City Hall spokesman Edward Skyler. “If Mark Green was as interested in this issue as he avows, it’s hard to imagine why he would have skipped Wednesday’s City Council meeting.”

The meeting dealt with some of the issues raised by Giuliani’s critics.