ACLU Defends Artist's Right to Paint in West Palm Beach's CityPlace Plaza

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
February 10, 2010 12:00 am

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ACLU of Florida
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West Palm Beach, Fla. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a federal lawsuit today against the City of West Palm Beach, West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, and CityPlace Community Redevelopment District on behalf of Bruce Kevin Bates, a street artist who was unlawfully prohibited from using a public area to create his art.

Bates regularly sets up his portable easel and chair at the south end of Harriet Himmel Theater, in a publicly owned plaza at CityPlace, an upscale outdoor mixed use mall, whose Web site characterizes it as “reminiscent of an Italian town center.” Bates’ easel was out of the way of foot traffic, and he positioned himself there to paint the city scenes in front of him.

On August 29, 2009, a West Palm Beach police officer and the head of CityPlace security approached Bates and told him that he was trespassing on private property and that he needed to leave. When Bates refused, the officer issued a trespass warning to Bates, threatening to arrest the artist if he is found again within the City Place Plaza area. As a result, Bates has not returned to CityPlace, even though he prefers the ambiance and architecture for his art.

The ACLU of Florida argues in the lawsuit that the Plaza and adjacent streets and sidewalks are public property, and therefore the policies limiting expression are unconstitutional. The land is owned by the CRA and leased to the district, which issued tax exempt municipal bonds to construct the Plaza and surrounding areas.

“The public plaza is an urban park in the middle of CityPlace. Pedestrians walk through the area on their way to different destinations in and around the plaza, and it is open to the public for regular and everyday use. Musicians play there on a weekly, if not daily basis,” said James K. Green, a West Palm Beach attorney and cooperating counsel with the ACLU. “The First Amendment cannot be curtailed in the public arena without a compelling reason, and the only reason that appears to exist here is that the city doesn’t want Mr. Bates to paint in CityPlace—that’s not a compelling government interest and is downright unconstitutional.”

The ACLU of Florida is asking the court to rule that the defendants violated Bates’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression, and to rule that the policies created by the CRA and District to regulate public use of the CityPlace Plaza and adjacent streets and sidewalks are unconstitutional.

View photos of Bates here:

Download a PDF of the complaint filed in federal court here:

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