Political Culture: Rudy and the First Amendment, Part One

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Giuliani in Drag“Freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it.”Rudy Giuliani, 1994

Well, the preliminaries are over, and — as the rogue NYC cops (allegedly) used to say as they pulled out their nightsticks — it’s “Giuliani Time”! Rudy sat out the first month of the primary season, and now it seems his strategy of manning the barricades in Florida while other states cast their ballots just might pan out next Tuesday — that is, if voters there can still remember his name and his magic number (9/11).

Actually, Rudy is hoping folks in the land of the snowbird and the butterfly ballot will remember little about him besides his empathetic 9/11 speechmaking and his general heart(less)-of-a-conservative cantankerousness. For if all those transplanted New Yawkers manage to dredge up the image they had of Rudy on, say, 9/10, he likely won’t have a gay couple’s chance in Tallahassee of closing the deal and heading into Super Tuesday with a win.

Rudy’s national reputation as Da Mayor rests on three tent poles: 9/11, fighting crime, and making Times Square safe for Disney and Toys R Us. Each of those resume items hides a darker truth — his boneheaded decision to place the city’s emergency management HQ in the World Trade Center, for instance, or the NYPD’s alarming tendency under his administration to use a weapon first and ask questions later. However, it is the last of Rudy’s “qualifications” with which we will concern ourselves today and in a follow-up post tomorrow, because it raises questions not only about his abusive relationship with the First Amendment, but also about his sometimes absurd megalomania.

The Times Square cleanup began with a major push during the mid-’90s to banish porn shops and strip clubs from the theater district. The re-zoning laws that pushed sex shops down 8th Avenue and toward the Hudson River were drafted in constitutionally dicey fashion, as the New York Civil Liberties Union pointed out at the time. They actually had begun their route through the City Council during David Dinkins’ administration, but Rudy pushed new regulations through the city’s planning commission, pressed for Gestapo-like enforcement, then trumpeted them as a highlight of his first term — even though their creation and passage had been more an effort to facilitate developers’ greed than any high-minded moral stand on Rudy’s part.

PlaypenIf you ask a New Yorker, he’ll say the anti-porn push was inconsistent in its focus and proved largely ineffective. Sure, the Times Square tourists don’t see as many dildos in storefronts as they used to, but their gain (if dildo-avoidance is a positive) is mitigated by the increasing number of sex shops in kid-friendly neighborhoods like Chelsea and Red Hook, Brooklyn. And porn palaces are creeping back into the Times Square area lately as well, moving up 6th and 8th avenues from Penn Station in increasing numbers. (In the wake of court challenges that watered down Rudy’s regulations during the late ’90s, many of these businesses can skirt the re-zoning rules so long as no more than 40 percent of their merchandise is sexually oriented.)

“He didn’t get rid of them from New York City, he dispersed them from Times Square — mostly to the industrial waterfront areas of the city,” former City Councilman Thomas Duane told the AP last year. “And as Manhattan became a more attractive place to live, people started moving into those communities, and now the same problem exists.”

In 1999, Michael Moore decided to target Rudy’s anti-porn crusade for his Bravo series “The Awful Truth.” Moore rented a Times Square storefront and opened the Mayor Giuliani Gift Shop and Sex Emporium; it was quickly shuttered by the cops (all caught on tape, of course). The website remains.

Even more arbitrary than the re-zoning efforts was Giuliani’s decision to begin enforcing, for the first time in six decades, a Prohibition-era ban on dancing in nightclubs that don’t have a cabaret license. (Some say the law initially was meant to curb interracial dancing during the Harlem Renaissance.) Aimed squarely at limiting the number of strip clubs in the city, particularly in non-commercial areas where no cabaret licenses are granted, Rudy’s anti-dancing initiative wound up affecting hundreds of non-porn establishments as well, from large discos in Queens to tiny bars in Manhattan where a song played on a jukebox might make three or more people get up and shake a tailfeather (which can result in a citation for the bar).

Shortly after replacing Rudy, Michael Bloomberg began to make noises about phasing out the antiquated cabaret laws, but they have remained in effect (though enforcement is haphazard). In 2007 a pair of protests had advocates dancing in the streets, but so far Bloomberg (who also has banned smoking in public places and has pushed through new regulations forcing clubs to close earlier or curb late-night noise) has refused to change his tune.

These porn battles early in Giuliani’s tenure served only as the initial evidence of Rudy grasping tightly onto a First-Amendment issue and then working it, working it, working it until it explodes. Comically, there was his 1998 demand that ads be removed from city buses that pitched New York magazine as “possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for” (the ban was lifted by court order). Less comically, he repeatedly attempted to put the kibosh on protests and other public demonstrations on city property, and imposed outrageous restrictions and fees on sidewalk artists and street musicians (in each instance, Rudy was found by courts to have violated free-speech rights).

Even in the wake of all these offenses, Rudy’s most egregious defiance of the First Amendment came in 1999 and 2001, when he morphed into Jesse Helms and tried to shut down the Brooklyn Museum. More about that tomorrow — right here at Popdose.