Troy City Officials Wield Building Code to Shut Down Game Art Exhibit

March 12, 2008 -

City officials in Troy, New York apparently used the municipal building code to shut down a controversial video game art exhibit.

As we've been tracking on GamePolitics, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal, a faculty member at the Art Institute of Chicago, was invited to present at - and then abruptly booted from - Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute.

Following his RPI expulsion, Bilal's Virtual Jihadi exhibit was moved to the nearby Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy. On Monday night, a local Republican political figure, Robert Mirch (left), led a protest against Bilal's work outside the Sanctuary. Mirch, by the way, also happens to be the Public Works Commissioner for the city of Troy. In that capacity, he is responsible for enforcing building codes.

On Tuesday, as reported by the Albany Times-Union, the Sanctuary for Independent Media was shut down by city code enforcement officials. Sanctuary spokesman Steve Pierce told the newspaper:
 

They put us out of business. They said we had doors that were not up to code.


Pierce made additional comments to the Schenectady Daily Gazette:
 

The only thing different between the day before and [Tuesday] is we have an Iraqi artist protesting the war. The next day, the city sent code enforcement to us and we were cited.


City Councilman Bill Dunne said:
 

This isn't the first time that code enforcement has operated in a fashion like this. It certainly on the surface smacks of political retribution.


Kathy High, an RPI Arts professor, added:
 

I guess we could cycle through all of the art galleries in the city and have the city shut them all down. This will make people afraid to show the exhibit and that is very wrong.


GP: Whether you like Bilal's work or hate it, to see political officials in the United States wield the power of law to shut down controversial expression is scary stuff, indeed.

Comments

If someone doesn't see things your way, destroy them...


...Neoconservatism at it's finest.

"When people who present viewpoints that oppose the government start disappearing you can claim that it’s like being in Iran or China."

Er, that doesn't happen in China. Surely, there is a humongous censorship problem, but what you say happens about as much as incidents like this one: a jackass flaunting his power. Unfortunately little can be done about such people here.

I hope that won't hold true for this case.

@shady8x, You couldn't be more accurate...this sort of stuff is EXACTLY what's going on in Russia now. Political opponents' offices get shut down for building violations just before press conferences, political rallies, elections or all of the above.

It really is something that a Republican would resort to the same sort of tactics the new communists in Kremlin are.

Wow, Adolph Hitler would be proud.

@ Jabrwock

Point taken. Mirch's lunacy shouldn't last long, then.

@ Ashton

People have been disappeared by the Chinese government in recent memory. It might not be happening as frequently at the moment but it has happened, it does happen and it will happen again.

Even if that does happen as often as incidents like Mirch's abuse of power it is still too much. There is a huge difference between having some jackass local politician close down an exhibit and having a government in power that is willing to and has in the past removed people from society who promote alternate viewpoints.

@EZK

Take a deep breath man, it's going to be ok.

Just posted the following feedback email on the City of Troy website:

"To whom it may concern,

I am deeply disturbed by the recent activities of your Public Works Commissioner, Robert Mirch. The citing of the Sanctuary for Independent Media building for building code violations yesterday, coincidentally the day after he led a public protest of an exhibit housed therein, smacks of political retribution and censorship. While he, or for that matter I, may not agree with the exhibitor, wielding one's position as a public official to censor free speech in the manner that Commissioner Mirch has done is at the very least unethical. I have to wonder if the city of Troy should remain affiliated with the great nation of The United States of America, where the last I checked free speech was protected by law and constitution, a fact that apparently has escaped the notice of Mr. Mirch."

For those interested, the URL of their feedback page is http://www.troyny.gov/contact_us.asp

The phone number of the Code Enforcement office is (518) 270-4584.

ah, the troy-let. add oppressive local regime to its list of fine attributes. boy i wish i still lived there...

With stuff like this becoming more common how much longer do you think games like World in Conflict or Turning Point: Fall of Liberty is banned by politicians for being “unpatriotic”? What’s the difference between these games and Virtual Jihadi?

God... this just makes me sick.

@ Tom

I definitely agree with you about that the Iran/China comparisons are completely inaccurate. The fact that people have the ability to make this hyperbole in a public setting is proof that we're not that bad. Unfortunately, it seems to be in the nature of many people to cling to certain phrases, like that comparison, 1984, or yelling that someone is a Nazi at something (Am I Godwin's Lawwing the convo. for pointing out it's overuse? Hrmm...)

Sounds like we're pretty much in agreement - some hyper-conservative jackass with sand in bad places censoring something doesn't compare to any of the afore-stated abuses.

Hopefully, the next news we see about Mirch is him leaving office.

Fuck*ng as*hole...

@ JB:

Thankfully, so far, the court system hasn't let that happen. While I understand the sentiment, I do think it's a bit far-fetched so far. You're also looking at the difference between showing that exhibit in a public place, and playing a video game in the privacy of your own home.

I'm not defending the fact that the city shut down that exhibit - not at all, it was censorship and an abuse of free speech. But there is a distinct difference, in everyday life and I believe in legal opinion, between showing something in public and your own house.

Example: Run around naked in public, you're getting hit with public indecency/indecent exposure. Run around in your house naked, and it's just freaking fun.

The only thing they achieved by doing tha is giving more publicity to that event. If it wasn't for that kind of knee jerk reaction from those people, only a handful of persons would be aware of Bilal and his exposition.

By trying to censor the Bilal, they've just achieved to do the opposite...

Submitted as feedback on the Troy website, posted by LAG:

I would like to express dismay at the actions of Public Works Commissioner Bob Mirch in unfairly applying building codes to the Sanctuary for Independent Media. It is no secret that the building needed repairs in order to meet code, but Sanctuary staff had been notified that they had until April to complete the repairs. Mirch's decision to strictly enforce the code just days after he personally lead a protest against one of the exhibits being held there smacks of bad intent, to say the least.

I urge the City Council, and other city officials, to take action on this matter and address Mirch's conduct. If this situation is not dealt with swiftly and decisively, the city of Troy will undoubtedly receive a great deal of bad publicity - and potentially even be the target of legal action - due to the actions of a single official's personal agenda.

@ LAG

I would love to think that submitting comments of protest to the Troy website would help. Unfortunately it seems that they condone his actions, as they used the same tactic to shut down criticism of their mayor. So I feel that any outrage sent through that method will fall on deaf ears and into the delete folder.

@ The Bobman

I am better now. Just had a Hulk moment there.

"People have been disappeared by the Chinese government in recent memory. It might not be happening as frequently at the moment but it has happened, it does happen and it will happen again."

Can you name a few examples? I don't want to put you on the spot or anything, it's just that I've heard my share of baseless claims and whatnot about the country, and I'm lived here for a while and it's nowhere near what most Westerners attempt to make it out to be.

"Even if that does happen as often as incidents like Mirch’s abuse of power it is still too much. There is a huge difference between having some jackass local politician close down an exhibit and having a government in power that is willing to and has in the past removed people from society who promote alternate viewpoints."

Except my point was that, much like Mirch, this would be an act of an individual acting on his own. Most of the time when an alternate viewpoint is expressed it is silence in a rather obvious method (e.g. replacing that particular TV spot with an ad or something) but I've never actually seen anything like "This guy said something and the next day he's gone."

I think this is going to get ugly.

*munches on popcorn*

I personally want to see the ACLU take Bob Mirch to task. This simply is not right on many levels. Video game inclusions or not, this is simply not fair!

~Otaku-Man

USA is well on its way to fascist goverment.

Umm.... what ever happened to the First Amendment?

@EZK

You may be (read "are probably") right. However, that's why I came back here and posted. I was not looking for approval, or brownie points, or anything like that. I was hoping that others, such as Mr. Miner above, would follow suit. Hopefully sheer volume will at least turn a few heads...not everyone on the Troy City Council can be a complete maroon.

lol @ dante

U think there was ever a time when USA wasn't facist?

This is why when someone says 'Oh, don't take that law so litterly, no one will every use it that way! it's harmless!" they need to be smacked.

Our legal system allows people in power to shut down pretty much anything they want. Philly has had repeated problems with alternative lifestyle spaces being shutdown via dubious 'building code violations' or 'business permit violations'.

An article from the Troy Record says:

"Mirch ... stated that he did not know the building had been closed to the public until he was contacted by several local reporters."

I wonder if he's just lying, or if someone else did it without his knowledge. It could be both that he had a lackey do it so that he wouldn't have to take the fall when/if a lawsuit is filed.

***

It also says, by way of politicians who are against the decision:

City Councilman Bill Dunne, D-District 4, noted that the administration had enacted similar code enforcement with past residents who had opposed their views, including Democratic counsel Victor DeBonis and city resident Jim deSeve.

“It looks like the city is using code enforcement officers as some form of political retaliation,” said Dunne, who noted that the City Council may be within their authority to subpoena code enforcement officers to inquire who sent them and why it was done on that day.

“The administration can put any spin on this they want, but this looks like censorship,” said Dunne, who believed there was a chance the city could be sued over the action.

Not much of a Sanctuary, what a disgrace, someone is itching for a first amendment smack down. Talk about underhanded tactics, much like Wafaa Bilal I'm left speechless... :(

Gift.

@Anon

Good point.

I lived in the Albany area for a couple of years and this is politics in that area. If someone is doing something you don't like, have the building shut down and closed with a BS excuse.

I don't support the exhibit in any way, but as long as public funds weren't contributing to its display I don't have a problem with it being shown. This is nothing more than political bullying.

Found it, but it's a bit of a long shot:

Civil Service Law §107 protects State employees from discriminatory practices based on their political affiliations.

* Employees’ appointments, selections to or removals from office or their employment status may not be affected or influenced by political opinions or affiliations.
* State employees may not use their State authority or official position to coerce, intimidate or otherwise influence other State employees to give money or service for any political purpose, to influence the political action of any person or entity, or to interfere with any election.
* State offices may not be used for soliciting or collecting any political contributions.

again long shot, but it does fall under the New York State Ethics Commission. If he wanted to send a minion out to do it, and claim he had no idea the closure had taken place, then he has to answer for why such an action was able to take place under his watch. I mean, the sudden lock-down of an independent art gallery within a 24-hour period after a political ousting at RPI over the same display should raise flags.

nuts....screwed up the bold text. The line in that is of interest is in the third bullet:

"State employees may not use their state authority or offical position...to influence the political action of any person or entity"

@Zachary Miner

Good find, here's a link to that article.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

Now this is way out of line.

Protesting peacefully is one thing. I agree with that because its just the people expressing their displeasure.

Using the law to shut someone down on a technicality is just an abuse of power.

@ LAG

I am glad that you sent the email. I wasn't trying to sound patronizing or anything. To me it seems that the corruption goes all the way to the top in Troy.

Surely it could help if enough people were to send in complaints. But to me it would not seem to be worth it.

For one, most of us are not residents of Troy.

Two, they seem pretty set in their ways and will be unwilling to change if there is not imminent danger to their political positions.

But by all means write them. It is better to speak out than to sit bakc and keep your mouth shut.

I can't...help..it...HE LOOKS LIKE HITLER! I mean just look at that photo! The guy looks like Hitler! Now that I got that off of my chest...

I hope the ACLU crawls all up into Troy. If they can freely use the code inspectors like a hammer, you can bet there's even more criminal activity going on in their local government.

Free speech like hell... Gotta hate fanatics, even when they're from the US.

Yup...Godwin's Law is as healthy as ever

Still, I'm right there with you Vinzent. I'm hoping the ACLU drops a ten-ton hammer on those clowns. One would think that if they saw this, they would be quick to act in getting this gent to answer for what he's done, least it get to a court. Then, all hell is going to break loose. Imagine if this went to the high court. Ohhh, and all because some gent wanted to force his political view on the public arena.

Class action anyone?

Oh man this is funny, and its made better by all the liberal tears flooding the internet.

Class action would be difficult. We have to show that we've been hurt by a product or action. So far, the only ones who could be considered would be those who wanted to see the exhibit. The artist and owners of the property stand a better chance on their own in court. We can support the hell out of them though. I still say getting the state involved would be the best solution. There is an addendum to the laws, to my understanding, that allows Committees to be exempt from their Civil Service Laws. Mayhaps it is time to have those fine individuals in NY come together and petition their state senators and representatives to repeal that little ditty and make committee memebers and their subordinates accountable for their actions. Elected or not, there is a higher standard expected, and pissing on someone because of a political belief and trying to prevent them from having their work shown when there is an apparent public interest is detrimental to even the most basic of civil discourses. This is a scared man pulling a BS tactic because he can. If his superiors won't bring a hammer down on it, then I would suggest their superiors bring a hammer down on them.

It's not so much liberals as... those who believe in the constitution, and what it stands for.

@ Anonymous

I will have to make the mother of all F@#$-ups and assume you are agreeing with Mr. Mirch in his actions, no?

More fun:

http://www.dailygazette.com/news/2008/mar/12/0312_troy/

The Albany chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union may file a lawsuit against the city over the alleged violations, said Executive Director Melanie Trimble....

[Deputy Mayor] Buell said city officials did visit the sanctuary Monday afternoon and gave the OK to allow it to present the display Monday night “as a courtesy.”

Somebody's changing their story... If it was such a health and safety hazard, you bent the rules "to be nice"? And if so, why not tell the Sanctuary then that it would only be open for a single night? Why wait until the next day to tell them "oh btw, we forgot, you're shut down".
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

Whoops, tags!
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

@Vinzent, I think a comparison to Joseph Stalin would be more accurate. This sort of stuff was invented by the communists (and still being used there, btw) after all.

Since when did Troy move to Nazi Germany?

Such a sad time we live in, politicaly correct or we can be sued, can't say how we feel or we're "offending someone's sense of decency."

Ya know if we wanted to be politicaly correct we shut up. But even then some one would be offended. Things like this makes me sick that the US "The Land of the FREE home of the BRAVE" has become the land of the repressed under the banner of "protected freedom"

Nazi Germany, The Soviet Union, The PRC, Iran.. All of which do the same as this. Most just blow people's brains out at the same time though.

@BlackIce

"Most just blow people’s brains out at the same time though."

Nah, first they put them through a show-trial, to set an example. Usually on charges of "corruption". THEN they blow their brains out...
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

What sucks about this is that the tax payers are going to end up paying.

I say that the government officials involved should pay out of their own pockets. They knew they were doing something wrong and still did it, the people shouldnt have to pay for their actions.

@ Jabrwock

Unless you live in Cambodia during Pol Pot. It was Usally a knock on your door, question asked "Hi, did you go to school?" if yes THEN you were shot. If no then torture, false trial THEN shot.
 
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