June 9, 2009 — The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Troy and Public Works Commissioner Robert Mirch for shutting down a local arts and media center on purported code violations in March 2008 after a controversial art exhibit opened there.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Media Alliance, a non-profit organization that operates The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, and Steve Pierce, its executive director. The Sanctuary, located at 3361 Sixth Ave., was ordered closed on March 11, 2008, a day after the opening of Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal’s digital art installation, “Virtual Jihadi,” which featured a video game parody in which a suicide bomber attempts to locate former President Bush.
The exhibit was intended to provoke thoughtful discussion of the Iraq War and the roots of terrorism, but it upset some people who objected to its content. Mirch, who oversees code enforcement in Troy, publicly denounced the exhibit in a press release and in several local radio interviews, calling it “disgusting” and comparing it to an “act of terrorism.” He led a protest against it outside the Sanctuary the night the exhibit opened.
The day after the exhibit opened and Mirch protested its content, city officials notified Media Alliance that the building was unfit for occupancy, citing violations involving the building’s doors. The city was already aware of these conditions and had never asserted that they were grounds for closing the Sanctuary.
“City officials cannot selectively enforce building codes to shut down an art exhibition they find distasteful,” said Melanie Trimble, director of the NYCLU’s Capital Region Chapter. “Mr. Mirch abused his authority to suppress the free speech rights of people he disagrees with – an unconstitutional act that must be challenged.”
The lawsuit maintains that Mirch 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.
“Free speech is crucial to our freedom, especially in times of war and crisis,” said Media Alliance’s Pierce. “Abuse of government power to prevent free speech is the ultimate betrayal of our democracy. Our public officials in Rensselaer County must put partisan politics behind them and instead act in the interest of the people they are sworn to serve.”
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the defendants’ actions violated the U.S. Constitution and the New York State Constitution. It asks the court to enjoin the defendants from any further retaliatory action against Media Alliance with respect to building code enforcement, and it seeks nominal damages to redress the violation of constitutional rights.
Media Alliance is being represented by the NYCLU and cooperating attorneys from O’Connell and Aronowitz, an Albany law firm.
“This case is a textbook example of an abuse of authority by a public official to suppress speech with which he disagrees,” said Cornelius D. Murray, lead council on the case. “Mirch’s actions strike at the very bedrock of our Constitution’s First Amendment rights. We simply cannot ignore that or allow his actions to go unchallenged.”