Patterico's Pontifications


Assassination Art: An Interesting First Amendment Question

Filed under: 2008 Election,Crime,General — Patterico @ 12:06 am

Yesterday a New York Times blog reported on an interesting free speech controversy taking place just across the street from the newspaper:

This morning, a Boston-born performance artist, Yazmany Arboleda, tried to set up a provocative art exhibition in a vacant storefront on West 40th Street in Midtown Manhattan with the title, “The Assassination of Hillary Clinton/The Assassination of Barack Obama,” in neatly stenciled letters on the plate glass windows at street level.

By 9:30 a.m., New York City police detectives and Secret Service agents had shut down the exhibition, and building workers had quickly covered over the inflammatory title with large sheets of brown paper and blue masking tape. The gallery is across the street from the southern entrance to The New York Times building.

Thing is, the guy claims he was just using a metaphor:

Later, Mr. Arboleda, who is 27, said in an interview: “It’s art. It’s not supposed to be harmful. It’s about character assassination — about how Obama and Hillary have been portrayed by the media.” He added, “It’s about the media.”

. . . .

Mr. Arboleda has even set up elaborate Web sites, one for Mrs. Clinton and one for Mr. Obama.

. . . .

He added, “The exhibition is supposed to be about character assassination. It’s philosophical and metaphorical.”

I was ready to write a post decrying the police conduct as overbearing. But in truth, I’m not so sure what happened. The story seems to lapse into some sloppy language accusing the police of things that the facts don’t necessarily support.

For example, that claim above that “New York City police detectives and Secret Service agents had shut down the exhibition.” Yet later in the post we read:

Special Agent Eric P. Zahren, a spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington, emphasized in a telephone interview that the agency did not seek to shut down the show.

“We did not shut down that exhibit or request that anybody else shut it down,” Agent Zahren said.

So how do we know that the police and Secret Service shut it down? The only other passage that is relevant to that claim says: “After the police arrived, building workers quickly covered up the installation.” Did they do it on their own, on orders from building authorities, or on orders from the police? We are not told.

So maybe the police shut it down, and maybe they didn’t.

I am similarly suspicious of the claim that “Arboleda had already been released from custody a short while earlier.”

What facts suggest that he was “in custody”? We are told that an interview with the newspaper “was abruptly ended as Mr. Arboleda was led off to the Midtown South police precinct station for what he called an interrogation.” If someone is being interrogated, that does not automatically mean they are in custody, the way most readers conceive of the term. (Lawyers: put aside what you learned about Miranda in law school. That doesn’t really have any relevance to what the average reader thinks.)

I think most readers would think “released from custody” means he had been arrested, or at the very least, detained by a show of force, threat, or authority. Maybe that happened — and maybe he just agreed to talk to police. The Police Chief doesn’t think he was necessarily arrested:

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, speaking to reporters at 1 Police Plaza around noon, said, “I am not certain he has been arrested . . .”

It sounds more like an interrogation:

“The Secret Service had to do a whole questionnaire with me,” he said. “It was about an hour of questioning. They asked if I owned guns, if I was a violent person, if I had ever been institutionalized.”

I’m not sure that he was arrested — or in “custody,” the way most people use the term. But I don’t know all the facts. Continuing:

Mr. Arboleda answered no. Nonetheless, he said the Secret Service asked him if he would voluntarily take down the exhibition title from the window.

I’m not sure that counts as “shutting down” the exhibition.

But the guy does have a point when he says:

“I’m renting that space; the space was allocated for an exhibition and it’s my right to put those words up,” he said. “They said it could incite someone to do something crazy, like break the window. It’s terrible, because they’re violating my rights. If someone breaks a window, they’re committing a crime.”

Indeed. And it doesn’t appear that the police have much of a concept of the First Amendment:

Asked whether the artwork was being seen as dangerous, Mr. Kelly said: “Obviously, it sounds totally inappropriate. We need more information as to what the purpose of it was. As I say, apparently he made some statements that he was referring to their reputations … don’t know, we will have to get more information. But he is being questioned now by our detectives and the Secret Service.”

Mr. Kelly was also asked why the artist would be questioned at all. “Why would we question him?” he responded. “Well, we want to determine what his motives are. Obviously they could be interpreted as advocating harm to protectees; both of the senators, of course, are now being provided Secret Service protection, that’s why the Secret Service was interested; both of them are federal employees, so, ah, of course it is a concern to federal authorities as it is to ourselves. Our lawyers are researching it and will determine if there are any violations of law; right now he is being questioned.”

Well, you can’t shut down expressions of speech because you think they’re “inappropriate.” if — I say if — the exhibition was shut down by authorities, they might want to consider whether there were any violations of law on their own part.

I’m sure they’ll get right on that.

UPDATE: Eugene Volokh says that, based on the NYT blog account (which Volokh agrees could be wrong), it sounds like the authorities might have overstepped their bounds.

41 Responses to “Assassination Art: An Interesting First Amendment Question”

  1. I suspect it may turn out to be more like this situation than some kind of a police state.

    Foxfier (15ac79)

  2. You can find Arboleda’s websites online, with pictures of the exhibits. There’s nothing in the online pictures that could credibly be considered a threat to either Obama or Clinton.

    What you find instead is the usual tit-fed academic crap art. The Obama exhibit is decked out with wall-sized penises in one room, and nooses in another. Hillary has a roomful of cigars, which a sign on the wall says are “also available in the rear”. And there’s a fake campaign sticker that says she is the answer to “niggeritis”. Oh, the nuance.

    All you liberals who liked Serrano should just love this. Don’t forget to accuse anyone who criticizes it of censorship.

    Glen Wishard (02562c)

  3. Excuse me, but what is the real difference here between this and the movie, “The Assassination of George Bush”???

    PCD (5c49b0)

  4. Didn’t a recent study show that both Obama and Clinton received generally positive coverage, while McCain received generally negative coverage? If this guy is concerned with character assassination, why is he focusing on the people who don’t suffer it as much?

    Tragic Clown Dog (0737fc)

  5. It’s entirely possible to be simultaneously (a) within one’s First Amendment rights and (b) a colossal jerk.

    Beldar (25ee73)

  6. It’s entirely possible to be simultaneously (a) within one’s First Amendment rights and (b) a colossal jerk.

    Several members of Congress (there’s this one jerk from CA that comes to mind) that prove that point on a regular basis…

    Scott Jacobs (fa5e57)

  7. 6, yes, and one Senator from Massachusetts recovering from surgery, fits your bill, too, Scott.

    Now, why such a reaction, in NYC of all places, when the Bush assassination film and the song, “The Ultimate Driveby”, in which the Elder Bush and LAPD Chief Gates are murdered, were not treated in the same fashion?

    PCD (5c49b0)

  8. “It’s about the media.”

    Is he making an accusation that “scresming madman Keith Olbermann or mental-case Chris Matthews” are assassinating Obama and Clinton?

    And, here I thought these media guys were Deranged with Bush-hate.

    syn (1017f1)

  9. we don’t appreciate “art” like this where i live. like most performance “artists”, this guy just wanted to cause sufficient provocation to get his name in the paper. well, you can get your name in the paper after the secret service closes your exhibition, and you can also get your name in the obituary section after angry private citizens part your hair with pool cues.

    the first amendment is an interesting constitutional abstraction for which i stand up almost all of the time, but when you start talking about assassinating presidential candidates, then i’m going awol from your unit. then, it’s meet and right for cops to question you to determine your motives and intentions. i’m old enough to remember jfk, rfk and mlk when they actually happened, not from a history class.

    this post is a fitting cousin to the tiger attack post. refrain from mocking and taunting dangerous animals. there’s no moat wide enough, no wall high enough to afford you 100% guaranteed safety from some of these animals. ok everybody, go ahead and call me a benighted philistine for the rest of the thread.

    assistant devil's advocate (4718c3)

  10. Nope, you’re dead on here in my mind, ADA…

    Scott Jacobs (fa5e57)

  11. First, performance art isn’t art. Not unless you are gay, seeking federal grant money, or just want to pretend that you are “with it” so you’ll call any crap art.

    And people with long annoying names aren’t artists. They are people traumatized by having stupid parents who gave them long, annoying names, so they act out with overwhelming stupidity so that other people focus on their stupid actions instead of their stupid names.

    Regardless, the 1st amendment was meant for political speech, not performance art that no straight person could possibly understand, not for porn, not for throwing pies at people, not for recieving public funds so you can pay for the beer it took for you to work up the piss you took on a crucifix in a bucket.

    When they round up lawyers and journalists, maybe there will be room on the train for “artists”, particularly those with annoying names.

    martin (cd5d90)

  12. I’m highly impressed that Martin got his apparent loathing of gays worked into that…

    Bravo, sir!

    Scott Jacobs (fa5e57)

  13. “First, performance art isn’t art.”

    I love this sort of stuff.

    stef (4fe3dc)

  14. I dunno,
    The Liberals funded this crap for decades….so why shouldn’t they be the topic of their own crap?
    we really need to dose academia with a good shot of reality. Each and every year brings forth another Pollyanna putz, who feels he/she is above the law and the worlds reality (I mean really, this shmuck didn’t think he’d have a sit down with the Secret service?)yeeeeesh.

    paul from fl (c865aa)

  15. Who objected when:

    Florida Democrats ran an ad calling for the assassination of Donald Rumsfeld?

    Cafe Press offered t-shirts saying “Kill Bush”?

    Charlie Brooker called for the assassination of President Bush in the British newspaper Guardian?

    Nobel Peace Prize winner Betty Williams said she could kill President Bush?

    Craig Kilborn, host of CBS’s “Late Late Show,” issued a call for snipers while showing footage of George W. Bush at the GOP convention in Philadelphia?

    Randi Rhodes joked about killing the President?

    radio talk host Mike Webb called for the death penalty for President Bush and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld?

    New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi called for Senator Schumer to “put a bullet between the president’s eyes?”

    Eminem’s lyrics said “I’d rather see the president dead.”

    ROA (ef0180)

  16. “Excuse me, but what is the real difference here between this and the movie, “The Assassination of George Bush”???

    Comment by PCD”

    Exactly. What about the play about a Bush assassination that was plastering handbills all over NYC in 2004 just before the convention ? As I recall, nothing was done to that creep.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  17. This is just a distraction. None of this is helping Michelle keep fresh fruit in their house for their children. Racists.

    Don Rumsfeld (75f5c3)

  18. The thing that sucks the most about situations like this is that it gives the opportunity for so-called artists of marginal talent at best to catapult to the height of free-speech martyrs. Who over the age of 15 really finds gutter level juvenile art lacking all irony and humor all that particularly subversive anymore?

    Jack Klompus (cf3660)

  19. Aside from whether authorities overstepped or not, I still maintain that when a 27-year old justifies himself with, “It’s art”, , I simultaneously shudder and immediately think, self-indulged, self-centered, self-promoting, self, self, self, ad nauesum.

    Its time for another one to grow up.

    Dana (b4a26c)

  20. Like so many other words today, the word “art” has lost all meaning …

    quasimodo (edc74e)

  21. Notice how quick the brown shirts react when Hill and Baracky are threatened. lol

    This clown knew what he was doing. The reaction may have been a bit much.

    JD (5f0e11)

  22. I’m not sure that you’re right about the popular conception of what being “in custody” means. To law enforcement professionals, being “in custody” may mean being under arrest or being held by force. But I would bet that if most people were told by a policeman, “You will come down to the station with me now,” they wouldn’t think they had much of a choice, and they would consider themselves to be in police custody.

    Gary Imhoff (5ba564)

  23. ADA and Scott Jacobs already said it. If you use certain words or act a certain way, even if it’s “art” or on your “own property” you’re going to get checked out by some sort of authority somehow.

    Is there some sort of mandate that requires that all threats to a sitting prez and VP have to be checked out? Does it extend to candidates for Prez?

    ROA- how do you know that the people involved in all those activities on your list weren’t checked out, in one way or another, by the authorities?

    EdWood (06cafa)

  24. I’m sorry guys. If you do not see this as “Fire in a crowded theater”, you need to pull back and gain perspective. Speculating about the assassination of political figures (unless you are genuinely discussing how to prevent it) metaphorically, metaphysically, ironically, artistically or actually is wrong and does not promote civil society or political progress.

    Rick (72cfc2)

  25. Was it the Special Forces that used to say:

    “Kill them all and let God sort it out.”?

    Might work for all pols too?

    Another Drew (8018ee)

  26. EdWood –
    I know that both Hillary and Obama have secret service agents with them; at some point the folks running are allowed to request them, but I don’t remember the point.

    Foxfier (15ac79)

  27. Hillary has them because former first families get them, and Obama has them because sometime last year some threats were made, and it was deemed better safe than sorry…

    The Secret Service doesn’t muck about with this stuff…

    Scott Jacobs (d3a6ec)

  28. ROA- how do you know that the people involved in all those activities on your list weren’t checked out, in one way or another, by the authorities?

    I’m assuming you’re a Democrat. Since those are almost all public figures, wouldn’t we have heard something about it? Especially since they do that to get attention, wouldn’t they themselves have announced it?

    Gerald A (b9214e)

  29. Exactly. We hear about it when it’s some shmuck with an art display… You think we WOULDN’T hear about it if high-visiblity Dems got checked out??

    Scott Jacobs (fa5e57)

  30. It’s my belief that this whole thing is a publicity stunt/hoax. When the artist’s assassination websites first appeared in early March, Hot Air and Protein Wisdom (among other blogs) noted them. The sites had photos of the exhibitions, and the images looked totally Photoshopped to me. I don’t think any real space exhibitions ever existed, although gallery space may have been rented for them for appearances’ sake.

    In the most recent incident described here, my guess is that the artist rented the space near the Times office, put up the exhibition title on the window, called a couple of media contacts and waited for the cops to show up.

    I think the whole thing was designed to gin up controversy, perhaps so that the “artist” could become a First Amendment martyr.

    Here’s one of my comments at Hot Air about it. Others at Protein Wisdom made the same guess.

    Missy (939906)

  31. Missy,

    I suspect you’re right.

    Is itjust a coinkydink that this happened literally across the street from the New York Times?

    Patterico (4911dc)

  32. It’s the exact same photo. The only other possible explanation would be that the gallery photoshopped out the Obama images in their ad on Wiki for copyright purposes.

    Is anyone in NY who could check this, as the authorities deny closing the exhibit?

    Apogee (366e8b)

  33. Patterico,

    Nope. Neither is it a coinkydink that today, June 6, is the 40th anniverary of the assassination of RFK. I think Arboleda timed his stunt as best he could to coincide with this anniversary. He figured if he unveiled the window on June 4, by June 6 the news would have spread (thanks to the Times) and he might even have been arrested.

    The manager of the building was quoted as saying “I had no idea what he was going to do. All I knew is that he was an artist and was going to use the store for two days: today and tomorrow.”

    And the Times played right along (surprise).

    Missy (939906)

  34. I’m sorry, the RFK anniversary was June 5, not June 6. But I think my point still stands, as the Times blog piece appeared on June 5.

    Missy (939906)

  35. RFK was shot on June 5 but he died on June 6. So you were right the first time.

    nk (be56c0)

  36. Let’s wait and see if Barack Tiberius-Claudius-Caesar-Augustus-Germanicus Obama ate or drank anything in the presence of Hillary.

    nk (be56c0)

  37. Thanks, nk.

    You know Obama had to be a little nervous when she asked him if he wanted some iced tea or something.

    Missy (939906)

  38. I would have thought she’d offer an almond cookie or something… 🙂

    Or a drive around the park…

    Scott Jacobs (fa5e57)

  39. Gee, Scott Jacobs, why not both?
    Cyanide almond cookies and roofies in the ice tea….
    (I think we’ve all seen too much masterpiece theater!)

    Foxfier (15ac79)

  40. Come now, we all know the constitution doesn’t apply to the SS.

    GeorgeH (8c15e5)

  41. Yes yes… Thugs the lot of them.

    Damn them for being willing to take a bullet for a shrew or a bit of vapor…

    Damn them all!

    Scott Jacobs (d3a6ec)

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