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Artists' rights & wrongs

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A Manhattan judge's decision to reinstate a permit for a graffiti festival in Chelsea - over Mayor Bloomberg's objections - was the right one.

But it's also a reminder of just how divisive even the most trivial of art exhibits can be. And just how close-to-absolute First Amendment protections are.

Bloomberg certainly had a point regarding the scourge of graffiti, which plagued this city for decades until Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned things up. It's not something to take lightly, and the organizers of this "block party" are being tremendously irresponsible by promoting vandalism and property destruction - just to flog a clothing line.

Still, the First Amendment gives them the right to be irresponsible. And that's as it should be.

But just imagine a host of similar controversies - and much, much worse ones, like the Brooklyn Museum Madonna-dung dust-up - arising in a more sensitive political and emotional context.

At Ground Zero.

That's just what New Yorkers will be in for if the International Freedom Center is housed at Ground Zero.

Despite opposition from 9/11 family members and the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the IFC is still part of the plan for the World Trade Center site.

Opponents of siting the museum at Ground Zero fear that it will become home to anti-American propaganda and strident criticism of the U.S. reaction to 9/11.

And they're right to worry: The IFC's backers inspire little confidence, and they've handed over some of their initial programming to less-than-trustworthy hands in academia.

Gov. Pataki has asked the IFC to "guarantee" that its lectures, discussions and displays will never disparage America nor offend the 9/11 families. But IFC assurances on this point are worthless - and unenforceable.

It would be unseemly for a museum to eagerly take marching orders from politicians. And it would be inappropriate for the governor, or any other elected official, to issue directives to the IFC regarding exhibits it could or could not host.

That's why the IFC simply doesn't belong at Ground Zero.

There's a place for unbridled freedom of speech and criticism of America.

In fact, there is hardly any spot in the country where such speech is out of place.

But Ground Zero, where 3,000 Americans died in the worst terrorist attack in our history, happens to be one of them.

The IFC must go.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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