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Brooklyn Museum Wins Free Speech Ruling on Art Exhibit

By Patricia Hurtado

In another First Amendment setback for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a federal judge Monday ordered him to stop withholding city money from the Brooklyn Museum of Art and to end an eviction proceeding he began over the controversial exhibit “Sensation.”

U.S. District Court Judge Nina Gershon concluded that the mayor had violated the museum’s First Amendment rights by trying to punish it for exhibiting works he deemed “sick,” “disgusting” and thus unworthy of city funding.

“There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution, as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy,” Gershon said in a ruling at Brooklyn federal court.

Giuliani had cut off the museum’s city subsidy and filed suit to evict it from its elegant, 19th-century quarters because the trustees refused to remove a Chris Ofili painting of the Virgin Mary that is dappled with elephant dung and pornographic cutouts.

Gershon said the Giuliani administration had attempted to “coerce” the museum, which houses the second-largest art collection in the US, out of its First Amendment right to free expression.

She granted a preliminary injunction that bars Giuliani and other city officials from “taking steps to inflict any punishment, retaliation, discrimination or sanction” against the museum because of the exhibit.

Gershon also ordered the city to restore a $7.2 million-a-year subsidy and stay an attempt to evict the museum.

While some legal experts had said from the outset that it was clear the museum’s First Amendment rights had been violated, Giuliani slammed the judge Monday as “totally out of control” and said she was “abandoning all reason under the guise of the First Amendment.”

“The judge is trying to gloss over and not deal with the fact that the purveyors of this trash are making millions and millions of dollars,” Giuliani said in Schenectady, where he was campaigning for a local candidate.

The Giuliani administration has lost more than 15 court cases involving the First Amendment, with issues ranging from the rights of city workers to speak in public to denial of permits for demonstrations.