New York artist wins injunction in D.C. leafleting fight

Wednesday, March 22, 2000

A street artist known for his unflattering portraits of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has won a permanent injunction against part of an anti-demonstration regulation not in the Big Apple, but in the nation’s capital.

A federal judge ruled on March 14 that Capitol Police cannot forbid leafleting within 250 feet of the U.S. Capitol building and that the prohibition violated the free-speech rights of Robert Lederman, 49.

“There is perhaps no more important a place than the Capitol, the epicenter of our nation’s democracy, where debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open,” U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts wrote in a decision that said Lederman’s leafleting effort was protected by the First Amendment.

Roberts left intact the part of the regulation that restricts “parading, picketing, speechmaking, holding vigils, sit-ins” and similar activities. But he found unconstitutional that part of the regulation covering “other expressive conduct that conveys a message supporting or opposing a view.”

Capitol Police arrested Lederman during Arts Advocacy Day on March 11, 1997, while the street artist handed out leaflets about Giuliani. Lederman faced trial in D.C. Criminal Court three months later. In November 1998, Judge Jerry Byrd found Lederman not guilty and ruled that the regulation banning protests in front of the Capitol without a permit was unconstitutional.

Lederman followed up that win with a federal lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction against the regulation.

In his 40-page ruling in Lederman v. U.S., Roberts granted the injunction against the portion of the regulation barring “other expressive conduct,” saying it was not narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.

Lederman, a New York street artist who claims to have been arrested no fewer than 40 times since 1994, is known for his art portraying Giuliani as Hitler and Satan. He formed A.R.T.I.S.T. — Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics — to fight censorship on New York City streets.

The group won an anti-censorship victory in 1996, when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bery v. City of New York that the city could not require street artists to obtain permits before selling their work on sidewalks. Such a law would violate freedom of speech, the court said. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the city’s appeal.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Lederman in the leafleting case, considers the Capitol to be among D.C.’s most restrictive venues. Capitol Police had barred demonstrations around the building from 1882 until a 1972 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court struck down the prohibition in a case involving a Vietnam War protest.

In 1995, Capitol Police reinstated the prohibition — this time creating a buffer zone extending 250 feet from the House and Senate steps. Some demonstrations were allowed, but only with permits.

Capitol Police contended that the regulation helped to control traffic and promote public safety.

Marina Varswell, an attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office representing the Capital Police, said the police board hadn’t determined if it would appeal Roberts’ decision. In the meantime, she said the board was considering a more narrowly tailored regulation.