The Giuliani administration has hit on yet another great money making idea. Sell the right of free speech on public sidewalks to corporations. They are about to open the bidding for contractors and corporate advertisers to build kiosks, pay toilets, newsstands and other bulky concrete and steel street furniture providing hundreds of thousands of square feet of new ad space. The City anticipates a windfall in revenues each year.
The only problem? Leaflet distributors, street artists, newspaper vendors and other First Amendment protected individuals who have a constitutional right to engage in these activities for free, make selling an exclusive right to speech difficult.
The Giuliani solution? Eliminate the competition. Outlaw free speech. Arrest street artists. Create new police units to arrest anyone posting leaflets. Restrict book vendors and small scale newspaper vendors to decrepit parts of the City that the big corporations are not interested in.
What about the potential for graffiti taggers to use all that new wall space? No need to worry, it's all under control. While school kids have no textbooks and often lack even a chair to sit in, under Mayor Giuliani's leadership the City budget allocates more than $40 million dollars a year for "graffiti abatement". Entire police units do nothing but arrest kids for writing on a lamppost or subway wall. For the thousands of teenage New Yorkers arrested each year, a criminal record which will handicap them for life begins with being arrested for writing their own name. The Mayor then uses these impressive "crime statistics" to help his re-election campaign.
Mayor Giuliani believes leaflets and sidewalk art displays, unlike corporate advertising on concrete kiosks, congest streets and create a chaotic atmosphere. As Bonnie, a SoHo Alliance member who called me to complain of political leaflets I'd hung on lightposts near her apartment explained, "We don't want you defacing our property. It's our neighborhood".
Bonnie didn't care that my leaflets were aimed at exposing her local City Council Member's corruption, or that "her neighborhood" is the exact location where this information is most appropriately posted. She didn't accept that those lightposts were not her property but public property. Bonnie also didn't seem to care that I'd tried to hand out leaflets in her neighborhood and had been arrested numerous times for doing so by police officers who frankly admitted they'd been ordered to arrest me by the same corrupt City Council Member I was exposing.
Bonnie also didn't appreciate the irony that her Mayor, her City Council Member and her group, the SoHo Alliance, all used those same lightposts to hang their own leaflets, election literature and announcements about local community meetings.
Neither Bonnie nor the Mayor understand that what they are doing is called censorship. It's not really the leaflet but the message that's being objected to. Messages that support the establishment, whether it's a corporate ad or local community board announcement, are tolerated and even encouraged. Any words or images that present an alternate viewpoint or attack the establishment are forbidden and are punishable by fine and imprisonment. In Giulianispeak that's called, "quality of life".
When the First Amendment was written, every town had a public area to post political leaflets, advertisements and exposes of government officials. It's unpopular speech that the First Amendment is directly intended to protect. Where on public property can a New Yorker express their views today? There is not one square inch of public space where we can legally hang a leaflet. If we make a speech on the sidewalk, we risk being arrested for disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct. I've been arrested fifteen times for speaking, holding up a protest sign, handing out literature, displaying a painting or posting a leaflet.
Can free speech create sidewalk litter, offend sensibilities or disturb the peace? Not to worry. Soon all we'll be able to see are those reassuring Disney and Nike ads, the incumbent's political campaign literature and an occasional announcement for the local community board.
If China, a nation justly criticized for human rights abuses and lack of freedom, can allow large wall spaces where anyone can paint or hang their comments, can't New York City leave its citizens just a little room for First Amendment freedom? The answer appears to be no.
Robert Lederman is president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics) and is a plaintiff in a First Amendment case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. On 4/7/97 he and Knut Masco, another A.R.T.I.S.T. member, were arrested for posting leaflets about City Council Member Kathryn Freed. On 5/12/97 they will be arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court 100 Centre Street part AR2 5th floor.
For more information contact (718) 369-2111 or visit the A.R.T.I.S.T. web site: http://www.openair.org/alerts/artist/nyc.html
Articles and Interviews
Art Crimes Front Page