November 14, 2008 — Related
The NYCLU's Letter (PDF)
The New York Civil Liberties Union today asked the Bloomberg administration to explain why it ordered the removal of a banner displaying a portrait of Joseph Stalin from the façade of the Cooper Union’s historic building on East Seventh Street.
“In a free society, the response to offensive speech is criticism and information, not censorship,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “We need to be certain that city regulations were not selectively enforced because people complained about the image of Stalin. If building code inspectors were sent to Cooper Union to enforce regulations because of complaints about the banner’s content, then that would run afoul of the First Amendment.”
In a letter to the Department of Buildings, the NYCLU asked for a clarification of the city’s conclusion that installing the banner violated local law. It also urged the city to expeditiously process whatever permits necessary so that the banner could be re-installed as quickly as possible.
The banner was a reproduction of a 1953 portrait of Stalin by Picasso, an image that at the time was viewed as a critique of the Soviet leader. The image was hung as part of an installation by Norwegian artist Lene Berg that was intended to provoke discussion on the relationship between art and politics.
The city told the school that it had received complaints about the banner from members of the East Village’s Ukrainian community, who were upset that the banner seemed to promote Stalin on the 75th anniversary of a famine imposed by the Soviet dictator that killed millions of Ukrainians. The city also informed the school that it lacked a permit required to hang the banner. The school removed the banner Friday, Oct. 31.
“What is important to me now that the installation is down is that there is a public discussion on what happened and why,” Berg said. “It’s deeply troubling that freedom of expression was so quickly abandoned, but my hope is that this controversy will force people to continue the discussion about the power of politics and representation. No authority or institution should silence free speech or censor art.”