A civil rights group claims the city violated a nonprofit organization’s free speech and assembly protections when it used code violations to prevent the showing of a controversial art exhibit inside a former church.
The Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union may file a lawsuit against the city over the alleged violations, said Executive Director Melanie Trimble.
“The city is suppressing free speech, and they will face consequences,” she said. “You cannot prevent people from assembling. It is an infringement of their First Amendment rights.”
Citing code violations, city officials on Tuesday told owners of The Sanctuary for Independent Media that the city will not allow people to assemble inside the building. The restriction effectively prevents the sanctuary from showing "Virtual Jihadi," an exhibition of the digital art work of Wafaa Bilal. The work depicts him trying to kill President Bush.
The city said the sanctuary must replace several entrance and exit doors that are too small. The doors must measure at least 32 inches, the city said. The city cited the organization for the code violations a year ago.
City spokesman Jeff Buell said the city did not shut down the sanctuary; it is just preventing people from entering the building.
“As soon as they fix the problems they can reopen and show the exhibit for the next two years,” he said.
Sanctuary spokesman Steve Pierce said the organization, a nonprofit specializing in community media arts, said the cost to replace the doors is approximately $15,000. He said the organization paid $60,000 to buy the former church more than two years ago.
The organization has obtained a grant to replace the doors and is trying to comply with the city’s demands, Pierce said. He said the city took follow-up action on the violations only after the sanctuary decided to show Bilal’s work.
Bilal is a former Iraqi citizen who immigrated to America in 1992. He has received many awards for his art as well as a scholarship to the Chicago Institute of Art for postgraduate study. He now teaches there.
Bilal said his work is meant to bring attention to the “vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war and racist generalizations and stereotypes as exhibited in games such as ‘Quest for Saddam,’ an American-made game where people try to kill the former leader of Iraq.” He said his work also aims to shed light on groups that traffic in crass and hateful stereotypes of Arab culture with games and other media.
Bilal was invited to display his work at RPI for two weeks by the college’s Department of Arts. However, the college canceled the exhibit because of its controversial content. The sanctuary then volunteered to display the work.
Buell said the city took action Tuesday after it received complaints about the building’s code violations.
“We have zero tolerance for code violations,” he said.
He denied the city took action as a result of the involvement of city employee Bob Mirch, who led a protest against the art display Monday night. Mirch is head of the city’s Department of Public Works, works for state Sen. Joseph Bruno as a constituent liaison and is Republican majority leader on the Rensselaer County Legislature.
“Mirch did not abuse his authority, and the city’s actions had nothing to do with the display,” Buell said.
Pierce sees it differently. He said the city gave permission Monday afternoon to allow the sanctuary to show the display that night, but changed its position after Mirch’s protest.
“We have him on video saying, ‘I am the director of public works, and I am organizing this protest.’ The next day they shut us down,” he said. “It is an issue of selective enforcement.”
Buell said city officials did visit the sanctuary Monday afternoon and gave the OK to allow it to present the display Monday night “as a courtesy.”
Trimble said the city is clearly “taking this opportunity to enforce code violations because of this exhibit. The building is coded for gatherings.”