NYCLU Calls on Arts Community to Oppose New York Mayor's "Decency Panel"

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
April 5, 2001 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–Joined by artists, free speech advocates and community groups, the New York Civil Liberties Union today called upon the city’s arts community to organize in opposition to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s appointment of a “decency panel” to review publicly funded art.


Renee Cox, whose artwork at the Brooklyn Museum reignited New York’s arts funding controversy, spoke at a press conference Thursday.

Donna Lieberman, Interim Director of the NYCLU, said that they and others plan to monitor the panel very closely and will insist that the panel conduct its affairs in public.

“The Mayor’s proposed “decency panel” reflects a basic misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of government funding for art institutions,” Lieberman said.

Two years ago, the Mayor used similar intimidation tactics to justify his ill-fated effort to effectively shut down the Brooklyn Museum — by withdrawing all City funding and terminating its lease — because he was offended by what he regarded as certain sacrilegious images in the controversial “Sensations” exhibition.

This latest attempt to impose so-called decency rules on art apparently stems from another work displayed at the Brooklyn Museum: a photograph depicting the Last Supper in which the Christ figure is portrayed as a nude black woman.

“The Mayor’s argument that taxpayer money should not support ‘offensive art’ rests on a belief that, by funding art museums, the City converts the artists and curators into government spokespersons who can be told what artistic expression they may and may not convey,” Lieberman said.

At a news conference today, the NYCLU called upon the arts community to develop a set of principles of artistic and curatorial freedom modeled after the principles developed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Those principles, developed in 1990, were designed, in part, to protect academic judgments about what art to display from the control of funding authorities.

NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg noted that the government funds arts and academic institutions “precisely because they are entities that convey diverse ideas and because they promote robust debate about social and cultural issues.”

“In supporting these institutions,” he added, “we well understand that ideas will sometimes be conveyed that are provocative and controversial. But it is also understood that the scholars and writers and artists who convey ideas at these institutions must be free to speak for themselves. They are not government spokespersons, nor should they be.”

The NYCLU said that the Mayor’s defense that the panel is merely advisory is unpersuasive, and said that if the panel recommends and the Mayor withholds funds based on the content of works of art, they would be violating clearly established the First Amendment doctrine.

As recently as February 28, the Supreme Court held unconstitutional a congressional effort to restrict government funding on the basis of the views that would be expressed with such funding.

“Just as politicians are prevented, by principles of academic freedom, from using the power of the purse to curtail academic freedom,” Eisenberg said, “politicians should also be prevented by principles of artistic and curatorial freedom from using the power of the purse to micro-manage the content of museum exhibitions.”

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