A federal judge in Miami has ruled that the city did not violate laws protecting free speech by removing a portrait of a 22-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by police in 2011 during a Memorial Day weekend event.
The work at the subject of the ruling is a black-and-white vinyl picture depicting a graphic of Haitian-American Raymond Herisse, who was shot to death by police while driving through downtown Miami. Created by artist Rodney Jackson in 2019, it was exhibited as part of a series of art installations entitled “ReFrame Miami Beach,” commissioned by the city of Miami Beach each year for its Urban Beach Weekend.
City officials removed the work before the end of the exhibition period, calling it “divisive” and “inaccurate,’ in their statements defending the move.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke decided that because the artworks in the exhibition — including the Herisse portrait — had been commissioned by the city, it constituted “government speech” and was therefore immune to free speech challenges.
In June, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida filed a lawsuit against Miami Beach officials on behalf of Jackson and the event’s curators Octavia Yearwood, Naiomy Guerrero and Jared McGriff over the removal of the painting. The suit alleged that the removal of the artwork violated the group’s First Amendment rights.
Herisse was killed while driving in a car through the area where the Urban Beach Weekend is held each year. The festival has drawn criticism by civic groups for being heavily policed by local authorities. Alan Levine, a lawyer for the ACLU, said in a press statement last year, “It’s a weekend that’s been characterized by aggressive police enforcing and racialized violence.”
Herisse’s killing drew widespread ire and put in motion a policy change in 2014 prohibiting Miami Beach police from shooting at moving vehicles unless a weapon is visible or in use.
“They hired us to start a conversation on racial injustice, and when we attempted to engage the public in that conversation, they wanted to shut us up,” said artist and plaintiff Rodney Jackson in a press conference organized by the ACLU last June.