I Was Arrested For Handing Out a Leaflet about the First Amendment

by Robert Lederman

On March 10th and 11th, 1997 eight members of A.R.T.I.S.T. and I drove to Washington, D.C. from New York to hand out leaflets about a Supreme Court case in which we are plaintiffs. Our case involves the right of artists to sell paintings, sculptures and other works of fine art on the street without a license, based on freedom of speech. We'd each been arrested numerous times for selling our art and had recently won a favorable decision in the 2nd circuit Federal Appeals Court. Now New York City was appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Legal briefs filed by the City claim that art does not express ideas and is unworthy of full First Amendment protection.

On the 10th and 11th, thousands of museum directors, arts attorneys, curators and heads of cultural institutions were in Washington for Arts Advocacy Day. It was an opportunity to reach influential people who'd be directly affected by the outcome of our case. We planned to quietly stand on the public sidewalk outside Art Advocacy Day events and give out leaflets describing the Supreme Court appeal and the issue of artists' First Amendment rights.

Everywhere we went in D.C. the police said we needed a permit to hand out even one leaflet and threatened us with arrest. They also claimed that even if we had a permit we would not be able to hand out literature in front of the event locations because they were Federal property. After explaining what we were doing and the subject of the leaflet, we continued to give out our literature while the police threatened us with arrest and conferred with supervisors and city attorneys about handling the situation.

Our literature distribution efforts were successful. By the end of the two days we'd managed to contact most of the Art Advocacy Day participants in D.C. We decided to make one final stop in front of the U.S. Capitol to create a few paintings as a visual statement about free expression. Many of the art advocates were inside the Capitol building meeting with members of Congress.

While the other artists painted I stood on the public sidewalk in front of the Capitol with a handful of literature. Everywhere around me were tourists and elected officials posing with lobbyists from various corporations and special interests. Before handing out a single leaflet I was approached by a sergeant from the Capitol Hill Police who explained that giving out literature was forbidden, but that I could apply for a permit which, if granted, would give me the right to demonstrate about 300 feet from the building in an isolated area. I explained to the officer that I'd be leaving D.C. in an hour, that I was not demonstrating, and that the First Amendment protected my right to quietly hand out a leaflet on a public sidewalk without a permit. He agreed that it probably did but informed me that I'd be arrested if I continued.

In New York City I've been arrested 13 times for selling my paintings on the street, for making a speech, for protesting and for distributing literature about artists' rights. Although generally cooperative with the police and willing to comply with reasonable demands, I draw the line at being told I can't give away free literature on a public sidewalk.

I explained my position to the officer and to the various Metro D.C., Federal undercover and Capitol Hill Police that eventually gathered around me. Meanwhile, members of Congress and well dressed lobbyists continued to exchange business cards, pose for photos and discuss issues on the same sidewalk where I stood with the police.

A warning was issued that if I handed out one more leaflet I'd be arrested. A man wearing an Arts Advocacy pin walked by and asked what I was giving out. I explained that I couldn't give him a leaflet without being arrested but that he could take one from the pile in my hand. When he did I was handcuffed and led to a waiting police car. Above, a uniformed man with a machine gun watched from the roof.

I was transported and booked into two separate police stations, repeatedly searched and charged with demonstrating without a permit. Federal intelligence officers interviewed me to determine if I was a terrorist. They asked questions about my political agenda, studied my leaflets and eventually agreed that what I did was probably protected by the First Amendment. I'll be standing trial in D.C. Superior Court on June 9th and face a $350 dollar fine and 90 days in jail. All of my property was returned except the leaflets, which are being held as evidence of my crime.

After posting bail I was released and returned to the Capitol building grounds to tell reporters there what had occurred. "Oh well, there's nothing we can do", one said. "We're constantly being threatened with arrest here ourselves".

I'll be going back to D.C. in June to stand trial. Meanwhile I'm looking for an attorney and writing a new leaflet about free speech and freedom of the press to give out at the Capitol.

For information on the street artist Federal lawsuit or A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics) visit the A.R.T.I.S.T. web page at: or contact Robert Lederman, (718) 369-2111 or (212) 334-4327 Press kits, photos of this and other arrests are available.

Stanton McCandlish

Program Director

Last updated 97/03/18