The Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture had leased its building from the city of Miami for a number of years without incident. After entering a second three-year lease with the city, the museum began to prepare for a fundraising auction. Several of the works chosen for the auction were created by artists who either had not renounced the Castro regime or had continued to live in a communist Cuba. Because of the inclusion of such works, the auction was met with hostility and controversy, which surrounded the museum for the nearly three years that followed. After receiving numerous allegations of misconduct by the museum, the City Commission sought and received advice from the City Attorney that eviction proceedings would be unsuccessful. The commission noted its displeasure with its inability to evict the museum. It then passed a motion resolving not to renew the lease with the museum and voted to look for a city-owned site for a Cuban museum to be run by the opponents of the current museum’s directors. When its lease was not renewed, the museum brought this action to the court.
The Court’s inquiry focused on whether the city had denied the museum its continued possession of the building on the basis of the directors’ exercise of their First Amendment rights. The museum directors bore the initial burden of showing that their conduct was constitutionally protected and that the conduct was a substantial or motivating factor in the city’s decision to deny a benefit, in this case, the lease renewal. Once the museum made such a showing, the burden shifted to the city to show that the lease renewal would have been denied in the absence of the protected conduct or expression.
The Court found that the museum’s exhibit and auction of art works without regard to the artists’ political beliefs and ideology was constitutionally protected expression. Moreover, the works in question did not constitute contraband under the Trading With the Enemy Act, as the only connection between the works and Castro Cuba were ideological ones based on the artists’ political beliefs. The Court also found that the city commission had been influenced by the community outcry over the art in its decision to end the museum’s possession of the building.
The city argued that would have made the decision not to renew the museum’s lease even in the absence of its expressive activity, citing allegations that the museum’s directors unlawfully were making a profit from the auctions and that the museum was failing to comply with insurance requirements. Based on evidence that the city commission either did little to investigate the allegations or, when it did investigate, found no evidence sufficient to evict the museum, the Court found that the city’s actions were motivated by the museum’s exercise of its First Amendment rights. Had the museum not exhibited or auctioned the controversial art, the city would not have acted to deny its use of the premises.
In sum, the court found that the city’s decision to punish the museum for its speech was an abuse of the city government’s discretion to act in the public interest. Accordingly, the Court ruled that the city could not deny the museum continued use of its premises.
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