Removal of Miami Beach Mural Honoring Police Shooting Victim Is Act of ‘Government Speech’, Court Rules

A federal appeals court in Florida that was revisiting a lawsuit surrounding an artwork removed by city officials in Miami Beach has upheld a previous ruling that the removal was not an act of censorship, the Art Newspaper reported on Wednesday.

The mural in question is Rodney Jackson‘s Memorial to Raymond Herisse (2019), a portrait commemorating the life of Haitian American Raymond Herisse, who was shot and killed by police during Miami Beach’s Urban Beach Weekend festivities in 2011. As part of the ReFrame Miami Beach project, Memorial to Raymond Herisse was included in the exhibition “I See You, Too,” staged with candles in front the four-foot-square vinyl piece.

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Curators Octavia Yearwood, Jared McGriff, and Naiomy Guerrero, and artist Rodney Jackson claimed that the removal of Jackson’s work by the Miami Beach police was an affront to their free speech.

A three-judge panel ultimately upheld the previous decision made by US District Judge Marcia G. Cooke, which ruled that since the artwork was commissioned and curated by the city of Miami Beach, its removal from the city’s program was an act of “government speech” falling under the first amendment.

“The court’s disappointing decision does not mean that the censorship by the Miami Beach police was justified,” Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the artists and curators in 2020, told the Art Newspaper. “The [American Civil Liberties Union] of Florida will continue to fight against such government-sanctioned discrimination,” he added.

The court concluded that “there is no genuine dispute of material fact that the city was speaking when it selected some artwork, but not others, to display at ReFrame”. Just as “governments are not obliged under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to permit the presence of a rebellious army’s battle flag in the pro-veterans parades that they fund and organize”, they are also “not obliged to display any particular artwork in the art exhibitions that they fund, organize and promote”.

The panel added, however, that this “does not absolve Miami Beach from criticism from its decision”.

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