The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a claim against the City of Troy on behalf of Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi refugee and artist whose controversial art installation “Virtual Jihadi” was closed the day after it opened on purported code violations. In May, the NYCLU filed a similar claim on behalf of The Sanctuary for Independent Media, which hosted the exhibit.
The exhibit, intended to provoke thought about the roots of violence, angered some people who objected to its content. Among those offended by the artwork was Robert Mirch, public works commissioner and majority leader of the Rensselaer County Legislature. Mirch, who oversees code enforcement, publicly denounced the exhibit and led a protest against it outside the Sanctuary. The NYCLU contends that Mirch used his official powers to have the building closed, which violated both the Bilal’s and the Sanctuary’s First Amendment rights to free speech and expression.
“Wafaa Bilal would like city officials in Troy to understand that artistic expression is protected, no matter how offensive its officials may find it,” said Melanie Trimble, director of the NYCLU’s Capital Region chapter. “The NYCLU will always defend artists from government suppression.”
Before the exhibit opened, the city had given no indication that it objected to the Sanctuary’s schedule for restoring its 106-year-old building. The Sanctuary had worked closely with the Bureau of Code Enforcement throughout the renovation process, and code enforcement officials inspected the building on April 23 and found no violations. Still, the gallery was ordered to close just a couple of weeks later.
Bilal is an associate professor at the Art Institute of Chicago and an artist in residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His exhibit was designed to demonstrate how Iraqi citizens, driven by frustration and hopelessness, are susceptible to terrorist groups.
“People should be free to express themselves without fear of inviting government retribution,” Trimble said.
State law requires that a notice of claim be filed prior to the filing of a lawsuit. The notice gives it time to offer a settlement and avoid litigation.