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Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Law
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"NYC Law" refers to the legal and juridical dimensions of City public policy. What do the laws say? How have they been interpreted? What is the relationship between laws as written and rules as enforced?
The Context
The sheer size of NYC government requires its extensive legal involvement in countless issues. Over 700 attorneys are employed in the Office of the Corporation Counsel alone. Every major and minor public policy issue has a legal dimension. On some issues -- Charter revision or campaign finance limits, for example -- the legal dimension is paramount.
The Reporter
Margaret Reuter is the managing editor of City Law, the bi-monthly journal on City legal developments published by the Center for New York City Law. She also serves as an adjunct professor at New York Law School. She is reachable at [email protected].

by Meg Reuter

Lincoln Center For The Arts, Not For Free Speech

(July '01) The food service employee union, HERE (or more formally the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employee union) has tried to organize the catering employees of Lincoln Center's concessionaire for quite some time, without luck. The struggle has been acrimonious and has enveloped not only the concessionaire, called Restaurant Associates, but also Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. There have been many trips to court. One was brought by the opera company trying to stop the union from bombarding its patrons and donors with accusations that the Met tolerated mistreatment of the food service workers. Another was brought by the union seeking to use the Plaza to stage a rally on behalf of the workers. That is the one I would like to describe to you.

In May 1999, the union asked the City Parks Department for a permit to hold a rally in the Lincoln Center Plaza to protest the concessionaire's treatment of the employees. The rally never happened--and a federal judge has just decided that the union has no cause to complain.

The City Department of Parks actually owns the land upon which Lincoln Center sits. The Center operates, maintains, and manages the property under an agreement with Parks, except for Damrosch Park. Based on this city ownership, HERE presumed that Parks would handle its permit request in the same manner that the agency would make permit decisions for any other city park. They were wrong. The management agreement allows Lincoln Center to control the use of the Plaza, and Lincoln Center refused the request, explaining that it had a policy against use of the Plaza for any political speech. Undaunted, the union sued in federal court claiming that its First Amendment free speech rights were violated because this was a public park and use of the park cannot be judged based on the content of its message, political or otherwise.

The union's first attempt was unsuccessful. US District Judge Lawrence McKenna found that Lincoln Center's policy was viewpoint neutral, meaning that they didn't base their decision on whether they liked or disliked the protesters' message. The court also pointed out that the prohibition against political speech was reasonable in light of the Center's artistic mission.

HERE disagreed and tried again. They searched and found seven news articles dating back to 1980 that reported all types of rallies, including non-arts events, that took place outside Lincoln Center. They brought these articles to the judge's attention, arguing that it proved that Lincoln Center authorized numerous non-arts events, and that its denial of HERE's rally was not viewpoint neutral at all, but rather showed Lincoln Center's active discrimination against the union and its message.

A new judge heard this phase of the case, US District Judge Kevin T. Duffy. Judge Duffy was unimpressed. He retorted that the newspaper reports merely described marches that were planned to stop at Lincoln Center, protests that occurred across from Lincoln Center, or rallies that had yet to take place at Lincoln Center. According to Judge Duffy, none of the articles indicated that Lincoln Center's prohibition against non-arts related events was inconsistently applied.

Judge Duffy also refused to view this case as one about the use of a public park, where first amendment privileges are the most vigorous. The court acknowledged that the Plaza is a city-owned park and is used as open space for the public to congregate, factors which would tend to indicate that public speakers should be accorded the broadest free speech privileges reserved under the constitution. Nonetheless Judge Duffy ruled that the Plaza was not so open, was designed to be a place apart, and dedicated to performing arts. Because of that, the city and Lincoln Center as its agent, could limit speech so long as the limits were reasonably related to the nature and use of the property. Here reserving the Plaza for arts-oriented events was reasonable.

Meg sounds off: Don't forget the little guys

It's worth reminding ourselves the debt we owe to unions. The union movement has been instrumental in creating a middle class. Just think, without unions no auto workers would be able to send their children off to college. Now just think of scores of restaurant workers, unskilled and low skilled workers serving wine and clearing away someone's dessert plate, in the same venerable hall that caters to famously capricious opera divas.

I do not profess to know the merits of HERE. I do know the merits of union representation. The concession contract between Restaurant Associates and Lincoln Center is up for renewal at the end of July. It behooves Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera to encourage their vendor to meet with the union and find a non- adversarial way for the employees to indicate whether they want the HERE union to represent them and negotiate on their behalf. If ever there was a ripe time for encouragement, now is the time.

Sites For Beginners:

  • Center for New York City Law - The site excerpts select reports from each issue of City Law, a monthly journal published by the Center. Critiques of nearly 40 City government-oriented websites (with links). Recommended: analysis of 1989 charter mandate that the City annually assess the condition of its bridges, libraries, public schools, police stations and the like.
  • City Council - Besides profiling its members, the site allows the user to search local laws and explains how a bill becomes law. Searches for local laws and bills have some limitations. For instance a search for "lead-based paint" produced the recent local law, backed by the administration, but not the competing bill offered by council member Michels.
  • New York City's Law Department - Part of the City's comprehensive NYCLink the site provides descriptions of the work of each division. Highlights include the City's 1997 complaint challenging the constitutionality of the federal line item veto, in PDF format, and former Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty's case for tort reform.
  • New York Law Journal - Best feature: access to full text versions of most cases reported in its pages, most of which are never reported anywhere else (such as on westlaw or lexis). Retrieve and print out the cases reported in the Law Journal by picking "courts on" and searching by court. This is a real service, given that compiling your own archive of these decisions had been an arduous task of cutting, pasting, and photocopying. Good links to all kinds of law, business, university, and government related sites.

Other Recommendations:

  • Association of the Bar of the City of New York- Site of the City Bar, organization highlighting its recently issued reports. Now playing: the full text of a report on the City's enormous tort case backlog (more than 62,000 cases) by the Council on Judicial Administration. They critique City efforts in addressing the problem against formidable odds. The site also includes an impressive list of pro bono opportunities for lawyers and law students.
  • The Constitution Society - The Liberty Library has more than 100 classic essays on constitutional government in html, text and pdf format. Features such profound works as Machiavelli's The Prince, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the Constitutional Ratification Debates.
  • NYC Documents at Columbia Univ. - This site links to scores of City related sites and guides users through Columbia's substantial collection of NYC-related materials by category.
  • Independent Budget Office - One of the illuminating features of the site: It will calculate exactly how your tax payments are divided up and spent at each level of government (city, state, and federal) both by broad category and by selected programs. Just input your taxes paid and adjusted income from your tax returns (or you can just estimate them, of course), and it will calculate the results.
  • Public Advocate - The chock-full site of Public Advocate Mark Green -- a good place to look to measure the worth of the office that Mayor Giuliani has targeted for abolition.
  • Citizens Budget Commission - Features recent research papers of the CBC. The latest: comparing the competitiveness of the NYC metro region's transportation infrastructure -- the City's highway and mass transit systems -- to LA, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and Paris.
  • Article 78 - This site provides a useful primer for lawyers and nonlawyers who seek to challenge a City or State action claiming it was irrational, arbitrary or illegal. The site explains how an Article 78 action can be started, though it provides little help with what standards the courts apply to overturn an agency decision. Sponsored by a private law firm, the site has some promotional material, but its primer is "promotion free."

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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