( Boston, MA) — Today, at the request of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, Boston Municipal Court Judge Annette Forde dismissed a criminal charge against performance artist Milan Kohout. Mr. Kohout had been accused of being an “unlicensed transient vendor” because of a performance he staged in front of a branch of Bank of America in downtown Boston in November 2007, in which he displayed a sign reading “Nooses on Sale,” and ironically offered ropes tied to look like nooses to passersby in protest of the subprime mortgage crisis. Despite the fact that Mr. Kohout never sold any of the “nooses” and never intended to do so, Boston police officers confiscated his sign and ropes and sought criminal charges.
“I am gratified that the Commonwealth has dropped this absurd charge, which was an attempt to punish me for exercising my right to freedom of speech,” Kohout said. “I never expected that the government would charge me with a crime for my performance. I wanted to wake people up to the fact that if we continue to support the economic system that caused the subprime mortgage crisis, we are literally putting a noose around all of our heads. The artist should be the barometer of what is wrong with our society.”
Mr. Kohout grew up in the former Czechoslovakia, and was expelled in 1986 by its totalitarian government because of his advocacy for human rights. He has been a performance artist for thirty years, and has staged works in the Czech Republic, Croatia, Poland, Taiwan, China and the United States. “I grew up in a totalitarian system which misused the law to prosecute dissidents for their critical expressions. For the government to use bogus charges to punish artists for their expression is a step toward that kind of system.”
The Commonwealth’s request for dismissal follows a motion to dismiss filed on Mr. Kohout’s behalf by his attorney, Jeffrey J. Pyle, of the Boston law firm Prince Lobel Tye LLP. The motion argued that the charge should not have been issued because there was no evidence that Kohout is a “transient vendor” as the law defines that term, and because a prosecution was based on Kohout’s exercise of his right to free speech.
“Mr. Kohout’s performance was protected symbolic speech, and the government should not be charging artists with crimes for exercising their constitutional rights,” Pyle said. Pyle noted that although the charge was dismissed, Mr. Kohout still had to endure the stress and worry of being a criminal defendant for months. “The mere fact that charges like this are brought can have a serious chilling effect over free speech. Mr. Kohout should never have been charged in the first place,” Pyle said.
In January 2008, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts of Massachusetts, Inc. referred Mr. Kohout’s case to Prince Lobel, which handled the matter on a pro bono basis. The VLA’s Executive Director, Jim Grace, said, “The VLA thanks Jeff Pyle and the firm of Prince Lobel for their work on this case and their dedication to protecting the rights and freedoms of artists in Massachusetts. This decision is a victory for all artists and their right to engage in free speech and social commentary through their art.”