NYC artist claims latest arrest due to retaliation

Friday, March 27, 1998

A New York City artist who sued the city for $200 million last week blamed his latest arrest—his 28th in four years—on a retaliatory Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Robert Lederman said city police and park enforcement officers “violently” arrested him Tuesday as he was protesting for his right to sell his work in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“This mayor really is creating a police state where any act of political dissent, including the filing of a lawsuit for false arrest and First Amendment violations, is likely to lead to immediate and drastic police action aimed at silencing speech,” said Andrew Miltenberg, who represents Lederman and three other artists.

Miltenberg said the arrest came only hours after the city was served legal papers in the $200 million civil-rights lawsuit.

But Thomas Rozinski, chief counsel for the city's parks department, said: “We've never been served papers as far as I've been told.”

He denied that Lederman's arrest was retaliatory, noting that park enforcement officers arrest him only when he's selling his work illegally, which is nearly every day.

“This is a person who regularly violates our rules because he believes he has a First Amendment right to sell without a permit,” Rozinski said. “We require the permits because if we didn't that would turn the parks into a large flea market.”

Last week, Lederman and three other artists filed a $200 million civil-rights lawsuit against the city, 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 “over-zealous 'quality-of-life' campaign.” City officials said the 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.

The lawsuit also charges the city with ignoring a 1996 ruling of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. The lawsuit said the ruling prohibits the city from forcing street artists to obtain permits before selling their work on sidewalks because such a requirement would violate their freedom of speech.

But Rozinski said Lederman's reading of Bery v. City of New York–the court case in question–is incorrect. He said the plaintiffs won their case because the city restricted the artists without an official permit program.

Now, the city offers as many as 75 permits for artists–24 in front of the museum–renewable monthly at $25 each. Rozinski said if the city receives more applications than permits, it distributes them based on a lottery.

“This is a system that is not only used in San Francisco to great effect, but it is also the one the ACLU recommended in their briefs in Bery that we use,” Rozinski said.

He said more than 85 percent of those applying for permits received them. In recent months, every artist who applied for a spot before the Met got one. In March, only 14 artists applied for the 24 spots in front of the Met.

“If we get more applications than 24 we might be willing to expand the number to 30. But right now, the numbers don't justify that.”

Rozinski said park officials don't immediately arrest artists who violate the permit system. He said they usually offer numerous warnings before handing out any summons.

“We are trying to be very accommodating here, but Mr. Lederman thinks his best method of protest is to get arrested everyday.”