Madison Square Garden may soon start to feel the repercussions of its contentious facial recognition policy, as the arena looks to renew its operating permit.
MSG Entertainment, which owns the arena alongside other venues like Radio City Music Hall, has been sharply criticized in the past few months over its use of facial recognition technology to bar entry to attorneys working for firms involved in litigation against the company.
On Feb. 2, the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) announced it launched a group to examine the legal and ethical impacts of MSG Entertainment’s policy, and said it may consider taking further action. “A law firm should be able to represent clients in a personal injury lawsuit, a dispute about concert tickets or any other legal matter without fear of retribution,” said Sherry Levin Wallach, NYSBA president, in a statement.
And in January, New York State Attorney General Letitia James wrote an open letter to MSG Entertainment, where she demanded answers on whether its use of facial recognition complies with human rights laws. Despite public outcry against the ban, James Dolan, CEO of MSG Entertainment, has stated that he will not back down from the company’s policy.
Madison Square Garden is currently seeking to renew its permit to continue operating at its arena above Penn Station, where it’s been located since 1963. On Jan. 13, MSG Entertainment began the application process for a special permit, which is required for city venues with more than 2,500 seats. Madison Square Garden’s current 10-year permit, which was granted in 2013, is set to expire this year.
The venue has changed locations numerous times over the past several decades. It first opened in 1879 at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 26th Street and was renovated in 1890, before being demolished in 1925. A new Madison Square Garden was built the same year on 8th Avenue, until the arena was demolished in the mid 1960s and moved to its current location. Mayor Eric Adams has reportedly considered rebuilding the arena once again, in order to create room for a Penn Station redevelopment.
The process of obtaining a permit renewal involves a New York City Council vote and a number of public hearings, which are likely to center on the arena’s use of facial surveillance. “I’m certainly getting frustrated that this is continuing,” said Assemblymember Alex Bores, who represents Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Murray Hill neighborhoods. “All options are on the table in terms of their ability to serve alcohol, get tax exemptions, and get a permit for being at that location.”
Could the permit be used as leverage?
If granted, the renewal is likely to contain specific requirements, as was the case in 2013 when Madison Square Garden’s permit was reduced to 10 years despite the venue previously being given a 50-year license. At the time, a City Council press release called the permit a “first step towards finding a new home for MSG,” and expressed the council’s desire to move the arena in order to renovate Penn Station.
“I’m hoping the City Council can write a special permit that includes some of the points we’re seeking,” said New York State Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who represents the district Madison Square Garden is currently located in. Earlier this month, Holyman-Sigal urged professional sports leagues to sanction MSG Entertainment until the company it ends it’s facial recognition policy.
MSG Entertainment should also be questioned on their use of facial recognition technology during public hearings concerning the permit, said Hoylman-Sigal. “Madison Square Garden is the beneficiary of so many privileges from the state and city of New York, the special permit is one example,” he said, adding that its location above the transit hub of Penn Station is another privilege.
City Council decisions regarding land-use typically follow the tradition of “member deference,” which is when the council defers to the position of the member representing the area in question. New York City Council Member Erik Bottcher, who represents Madison Square Garden’s district, suggested the arena should move to the Western Rail Yards on the west side of Manhattan. “New Yorkers deserve a first-rate entertainment and sports arena, and a first-rate train station, and moving Madison Square Garden to the Western Rail Yards would achieve both,” said Bottcher in a statement.
The permit is a serious consideration for the council to review, according to Hoylman-Sigal. “We public officials need to use this leverage to get Madison Square Garden to treat New Yorkers with the respect and dignity we all deserve.”