14 Years After Brooklyn Museum v. NYC: Mayoral Candidate Joe Lhota Says He Now Understands the First Amendment

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Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota speaks out about his
role in the 1999 Brooklyn Museum v. NYC fiasco.

Joe Lhota, NYC mayoral hopeful, is facing tough questions about his involvement in the dispute between the Brooklyn Museum and the Guilani administration in 1999.  As Deputy Mayor, Lhota spear-headed the campaign to close the Brooklyn Museum and cut it’s funding after Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary went on display.
In March of 1999 the Brooklyn Museum Board of Directors voted to keep the work on show and Lhota (in attendance as the mayor’s representative) announced that as punishment the City would withhold funding of $500,000. The museum took the City to court.
In a deposition he gave on October 7, 1999 in the case Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences v. The City of New York and Rudolph W. Giulani, Lhota stated that the museum’s lease with the City required that the museum be free to all visitors, and can only charge admission with permission from the mayor.  For this reason, he argued, the City had the right to close the museum and refuse it’s funding.

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996.

The banter back and forth between Susan Buckley, attorney for the museum, and Lhota reveals that the City had misinformation and misinterpreted the information they had.  Lhota admits several times that he did not read entire statutes or documents, but only portions.  When asked why Lhota failed to attach legal references to his affidavit he responded: “I have not read them fully so I’m not sure I’d consider attaching something I hadn’t read.”

In November 1999, Judge Nina Gershon ruled that the city violated the First Amendment.  Interestingly, she noted that Lhota’s testimony convinced her that the city or mayor did not have “veto power over the museum’s decisions as to what to display.”  The museum settled for $5.8 million.

Now on the campaign trail, Lhota is facing new scrutiny.  At a mayorial forum on Tuesday, Lhota said in reference to the case: “Do I regret doing it? Yeah, I regret doing it.  And I regret how embarrassing it was at the time.”  But he affirmed that he still believes that Ofili’s work was offensive “as a concept.”
In March however, The New York Times reported that Lhota had a different demeanor.  Michael Barbaro wrote that he was unapologetic–defending his conduct and motivation.   Lhota is quoted as saying: “I don’t regret the tactics– at all.”
However Lhota decides to “spin” his involvement will no doubt become the focus of more discussion as the election comes closer.  Jack A. Josephson, a former board member at the Brooklyn Museum, advises caution: “He did it once; he could certainly do it again.  If you are a museum person today, you’d have to keep this in the back of your mind.  They all should be worried that they might do something that would offend a Mayor Lhota.”
Sources: “Joe Lhota Regrets Art Wars with Brooklyn Museum during Guiliani Years,” NY Daily News, May 8, 2013; “For Mayoral Hopeful Who Lost Fight to Remove Art, No Regrets,” The New York Times, March 27, 2013.

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