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About New York
Free Speech? Looks More Like Free Fall

The visitor from California could either pay $16, to stand in line for the elevators to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, or $40, to cut that line and ride the express. He decided to live large, an appropriate choice given the expensive fat suit he was wearing as part of an elaborate disguise.

By the way, his lawyer would like to make one point clear about his client’s visit that April afternoon. He saw no sign stating that jumping from the 86th floor’s observation deck was forbidden; no international symbol of prohibition — that red circle with a slash through it — superimposed over a pictogram of a plummeting stick figure. Not a one.

Of course, the Empire State Building also does not have signs expressly prohibiting ritual sacrifices, wearing white after Labor Day or belting out Broadway show tunes in a crowd. Some things are just — understood.

Anyway, the visitor from California reached the observation deck, slipped into a bathroom, and shed his fat suit to reveal a fitter, thinner self: Jeb Corliss, 30, parachuting daredevil. He then climbed onto the ledge with, it is assumed, intentions to jump.

This assumption is based on the following: a) he had a parachute in his possession, and b) the view of Manhattan is not appreciably better from the observation deck’s ledge.

The people at the Empire State Building tend to be touchy about this sort of thing, since they have had their fair share of people jumping from the observation deck without the benefit of parachutes. They also do not want the building to develop a reputation as a launch pad for those who have something against the laws of gravity.

That is why security officers leaped into action, handcuffing Mr. Corliss to the ledge’s railing. Then the police arrived, fully dashing his hopes of airborne glory. Rather than having more hand-perspiring video to put on television and the Internet, rather than having another landmark to add to his long list of conquests — the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge — he remained earthbound, locked up overnight.

Mr. Corliss told officials that he had been planning this jump for 10 years, but always with safety in mind. For example, he had delayed the jump for a week until the wind was right, and he had even studied the traffic patterns below. “All the lights up the avenue turn green at the same time,” he told them. “I was timing my jump so I would land when the avenue was clear. Then I would just get into a cab and take off.”

He also said that his research found no laws against jumping from buildings in New York. If this were so, then why bother with a fat suit and quick getaway plans? Then again, why engage in a quarrel of logic with a guy who likes to jump from bridges and buildings?

No matter. Mr. Corliss was charged with reckless endangerment, a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to seven years. If convicted, he could be a bird in a cage.

Yesterday, Mr. Corliss’s lawyer, Mark Jay Heller, filed a motion to dismiss the charge. He argued that his client’s actions did not constitute reckless endangerment — for one thing, he never jumped — and besides, he has a constitutional right to freedom of expression.

“This gentleman, I maintain, is an artist and has freedom of expression,” Mr. Heller said. “His art is not with pen or music; his art is with his body movement.”

Officials from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office declined to comment, save for one who muttered, “I wouldn’t want his freedom of expression to land on my head.”

What a difference mere seconds can make.

If Mr. Corliss had jumped and then landed 1,000 feet below without accident or splat, the city might very well have embraced him as it did Philippe Petit, the aerialist who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and George Willig, the mountain climber who scaled the center’s south tower in 1977. Through him, we might have sailed vicariously through the Midtown canyon like a red-tailed hawk.

But he did not make it over that ledge, and so he became the moron from Malibu, willing to risk the lives of others for his own gratification, testing a busy city’s patience. As The Daily News put it in a headline: “Jumping Jerk.”

His pride injured, Mr. Corliss has said that he will not attempt another leap from the Empire State Building. But if he does, he should not expect to see signs prohibiting acts of reckless danger, or pure vanity. Some things are understood.

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