Judge denies injunction for New York artists

Monday, April 20, 1998

A group of protesting New York artists is pleading for assistance from civil rights and arts groups after a judge Friday declined to prohibit their continued arrest.

Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics, or A.R.T.I.S.T., last month filed a $200 million civil-rights lawsuit against the city, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the police and parks departments, claiming that a city permit policy limiting the number of vendors in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art violates their free-speech rights. During nearly three months of protests, group president Robert Lederman claims he’s been arrested almost a dozen times.

Last week, Lederman and the others asked a U.S. district court for an injunction to stop “the pattern of daily arrests” until the civil case is decided. On Friday, Judge Lawrence McKenna ruled against the injunction.

“While the ruling is disappointing, it will not cause us to end this protest or accept a permit,” Lederman said. “The Parks Department views Central Park as just another piece of real estate. Apparently, First Amendment freedom of speech is an obstacle to the full exploitation of this resource.”

Lederman said a 1996 federal case in which he was a plaintiff determined that street artists have “a full right to First Amendment protection on New York City streets.”

City officials said Lederman’s take on Bery v. City of New York—the court case in question—is incorrect. They said the plaintiffs won their case because the city restricted the artists without providing the alternative of an official permit program.

In his decision, McKenna seemed to agree with that claim, noting that the permit policy was needed to control the traffic in front of the Met, currently under renovation.

But Lederman contends that the permit system is really a first step toward competitive bidding for concessions. It is “a transition from First Amendment freedom to a concession system which will result in Disney souvenir stands and more food carts replacing the artists. We are making a stand at the Met to defend free speech on public property, not just to have a place to sell our art,” he said in a prepared statement.

Lederman said the artists plan to file an appeal this week. They also hope to secure amicus briefs from various arts and rights groups.