NEW YORK — A federal judge yesterday ordered the city to allow an exhibition later this week in which 20 artists plan to spray-paint graffiti on models of subway cars.
The city, citing its years of work to clean up subways once plagued by graffiti, had argued the block party would encourage people to vandalize real subway cars.
But Judge Jed Rakoff of Manhattan federal court said the city's denial of a permit for the party was a "flagrant violation" of the First Amendment's free-speech protection.
Under the logic of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the judge said in a brief order, "A street performance of 'Hamlet' would be tantamount to encouraging revenge murder."
The exhibition, set for tomorrow in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, is the brainchild of Marc Ecko, a fashion designer who began his career as a graffiti artist in New York.
According to plans laid out by Ecko's company, Ecko Unlimited, 20 former graffiti artists will spray graffiti onto two-dimensional replicas of subway cars.
The city initially granted a permit for the event, then said it was too commercial — original plans called for promotion of an Ecko video game — and ultimately revoked the permit on grounds that it would encourage a crime.
City lawyer Paula Van Meter had told the judge that young people could get the message that graffiti vandalism was acceptable and could easily repeat the act "down the street and down the stairs" in the subway system.
"It will raise to the consciousness once again, in a celebratory way, graffiti vandalism on subway cars," she said.
The judge noted that anyone who vandalized public property could be prosecuted. In his order, he quoted Bloomberg, who on his radio program on Aug. 19 said the exhibition was "trying to encourage people to do something that's not in anybody's interest."
The judge responded: "Such heavy-handed censorship would, moreover, fall particularly hard on artists, who frequently revel in breaking conventions or tweaking the powers that be."
Ecko, who sat before the judge with his lawyers yesterday, said after the ruling he was "just excited."
"We knew this was worth fighting for, and clearly the mayor must have been misinformed," he said.
Ecko Unlimited has said it arranged for a private security firm for the event and planned to post signs explaining that it's illegal to deface public places with graffiti.
Van Meter said after court that the city could still appeal.