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NYCLU Calls On City To Reinstate Permit For Graffiti Art Exhibit

The New York Civil Liberties Union today called on New York City to reinstate the permit for Mark Ecko Enterprises to conduct an outdoor art exhibition featuring graffiti artists and images of subway cars. The call for reinstatement comes after the City revoked the permit citing the content of the art. In a letter to Mayor Bloomberg, the NYCLU said revoking the permit is a clear violation of the First Amendment rights of the artists.

“If an artist chooses to paint on her own canvas or wall-board or cut-out replicas of subway cars and chooses to do so in the graffiti style, this artistic expression is entitled to full protection under the First Amendment,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU.

Ecko Enterprises received a permit on July 18, 2005 for a block party designed to present graffiti as an art form. Ecko had planned to conduct an outdoor art exhibition featuring graffiti artists who would provide live art demonstrations, including the simulation of graffiti on images of subway cars. City officials apparently revoked the street activity permit claiming that the simulation of graffiti on images of subway cars would encourage people to engage in unlawful graffiti.

In defense of the sponsors, the NYCLU cited Brandenburg v. Ohio, a Supreme Court ruling that stated that even advocacy that might possibly inspire unlawful conduct does not lose its First Amendment protection unless such expression “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

“Lawyers for the City well know — or should know — that the exhibition does not even remotely cross the Brandenburg line and that the City’s attempted censorship cannot be sustained under current First Amendment doctrine,” said Art Eisenberg, Legal Director of the NYCLU.

Ecko Enterprises has offered to disavow and discourage unlawful conduct by making statements discouraging unlawful graffiti at the art exhibition itself or even by organizing artists to convey that message in the public schools. There is no evidence that individuals viewing the exhibition will be impelled to respond with “imminent lawless conduct.”

In revoking the permit for the event, the City told the sponsor that it can present an art demonstration with artists painting canvases or wall-board only as long as such expression does not take the form of the graffiti style or as long as the objects that are being painted are not in the form of a subway car. This represents censorship by the City of artistic expression based on content.

The NYCLU strongly urged the Mayor’s Office to reverse this decision and to reinstate the permit.

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