Settlement Ends NYCLU Lawsuit Challenging Shut Down of Controversial Art Exhibit

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February 27, 2012 —  As part of the settlement of a federal lawsuit concerning the 2008 closure of a local arts and media center after a controversial exhibit opened there, the City of Troy will partner with the media center on a grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and the Albany law firm of O'Connell and Aronowitz filed the lawsuit in June 2009 on behalf of Media Alliance, a non-profit organization that operates the media center, The Sanctuary for Independent Media. The lawsuit challenged the city’s decision to close the media center on purported code violations on March 11, 2008, a day after the opening of Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal’s digital art installation, “Virtual Jihadi.” The city and former Public Works Commissioner Robert Mirch were listed as defendants.

“We're very pleased to have reached a settlement that allows us to move forward with the City of Troy in a positive way,” said Steve Pierce, executive director of Media Alliance. “This agreement underscores the importance of free expression in our community, and opens the door to an unprecedented arts-driven neighborhood revitalization on our block in North Troy. We appreciate the massive outpouring of support that brought us to this successful resolution of our case.”

A federal judge on Wednesday approved a settlement agreement ending the lawsuit. Under the settlement, the city will help Media Alliance apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. If the National Endowment for the Arts awards the grant, the city agreed to provide up to $50,000 in matching funds. The city’s match is contingent on Media Alliance receiving the grant. The city also agreed to pay Media Alliance $5,000.

“This settlement represents a victory for free speech,” said Melanie Trimble, director of the NYCLU’s Capital Region Chapter. “By committing to help the Media Alliance get federal funding, the city has demonstrated that it values free expression and that the First Amendment protects controversial speech.”

The lawsuit had argued that Mirch, who at the time oversaw building code enforcement and had led protests of the exhibit, used his official powers to have the building closed, violating Media Alliance’s First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, and its due process and equal protection rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments.

“I am proud to have been part of bringing the City of Troy and Media Alliance together in such a positive way,” said Neil Rivchin, Esq. of O’Connell and Aronowitz, which handled the lawsuit on a pro bono basis. “The city, once an adversary, is now partnering with Media Alliance to support cultural and artistic events that will, no doubt, build pride in a long ignored inner city neighborhood. This will benefit the entire City of Troy and all of its inner city residents.”