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Manhattan court drops 24 charges against street artist

Phillip Taylor
First Amendment Center

11.25.98

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Robert Lederman...
Robert Lederman

A Manhattan Criminal Court judge last week threw out 24 cases involving a New York City street artist arrested numerous times for selling his works in public parks and outside museums without a permit.

Judge Lucy Billings threw out charges against Robert Lederman, who has lashed out against the city and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for infringing on his right to sell his works on the city's sidewalks.

Lederman called the dismissal of the charges a "vindication" and "further proof that at the highest levels the Giuliani administration is about violating law, not law enforcement."

For nearly four years, Lederman and the other artists who comprise A.R.T.I.S.T., or Artists' Response to Illegal State Tactics, have contested a city permit policy that limits the number of vendors on New York City sidewalks.

In 1996, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bery v. City of New York that the city could not require street artists to obtain permits before selling their work on sidewalks because such a law would violate freedom of speech. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the city's appeal.

Despite the ruling, the city drafted another permit law that went into effect on March 1. City leaders contend that the policy is necessary to keep the high number of vendors from blocking city sidewalks.

Lederman and three other artists filed a $300 million civil-rights lawsuit against the city, Giuliani and the police and parks department, contending that the permit law remains unconstitutional.

In August, Billings dismissed some of the charges against Lederman and other artists, saying "licensing is not a permissible restriction on vending of written material under any circumstances."

Last Thursday, the judge dismissed 24 cases against Lederman, 14 cases against Knut Masco, 11 cases against Jack Nesbitt and three cases against Wei Zhang.

Lederman, who claims to have been arrested 34 times by New York City police, said the judge's ruling left two cases open against him. He said he's scheduled to stand trial for two arrests involving protests he organized earlier this year against Giuliani and another arrest for posting a political leaflet on a light pole during an election primary last year.

"The city fully knew these were illegal acts on their part and proceeded anyway, as they've being doing since 1994 when the mayor took office," Lederman said. "It should make more people question all of the other arrests Giuliani is so famous for."

Calls placed by free! to Giuliani's press office were not returned.

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