ACLU Defends Artist's Right to Paint at CityPlace

When is a city not a city? When it's a shopping center disguised as something "reminiscent of an Italian town center." Note that word reminiscent. As West Palm artist Bruce Kevin Bates found out, you may be able to set up your easel at the Villa d'Este in Tivoli or next to the Trevi fountain in Rome, but the rules are very different when you're hoping to sketch those Italianate arches at CityPlace.

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit yesterday on behalf of Bates, who was kicked out of a public square at CityPlace for trespassing on August 29. Bates had been regularly setting up his portable easel and chair outside the Harriet Himmel Theater for a bit of inspirational scenery. CityPlace security finally issued him a warning and threatened to arrest him if he ever came back. (see Bates' in-progress painting of the Himmel Theater here.)

The ACLU is arguing that the square is public property and that Bates was unlawfully prohibited from using a public area. CityPlace has long been wanting to have its cake and eat it too: On the one hand, the West Palm CRA owns the land, its funds were used to construct the plaza, and streets and sidewalks were built with tax-exempt municipal bonds. And on the other, CityPlace management has policies that reserve its right to ban anybody who isn't making it a buck. It's times like these that make it clear that CityPlace is not so much about living, working, and enjoying the sunshine as it is about shopping. The district has found itself in hot water in the past for attempting to prevent legal protests and political rallies.

CityPlace sells licenses to entertainers it deems suitably revenue-generating ("unfettered, unreviewable, standard-less discretion to grant licenses for a fee primarily to benefit private business," says the complaint.) Everyone else can go to... Tivoli.

Bates' landscape of Delray Beach.
Bates' landscape of Delray Beach.

The ACLU names the West Palm CRA, the City of West Palm, and the Cityplace Community Redevelopment District in its suit, arguing that they are collectively trampling Bates's First Amendment Right to freedom of expression. "The First Amendment cannot be curtailed in the public arena without a compelling reason," says ACLU attorney Jim Green, "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 is hoping that courts will rule that the district's policies are illegal, paving the way for painters, protesters, and buskers to frolic as they will in the plaza.

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