A San Antonio arts organization won a major victory for public funding of the arts when a district court judge ruled that city officials violated the First Amendment by denying the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center a $62,000 grant in 1997, contrary to the recommendations of its own arts council (Censorship News 70, 67).
Esperanza’a nonprofit cultural arts and education center which advocates for civil rights and economic justice—had received operating funds and arts grants from the City since 1990. A newly-elected City Council stripped its funding when Esperanza was attacked for “advocating” a gay and lesbian lifestyle and for being a “too-political, in-your-face” group.
Judge Orlando L. Garcia delivered an 85-page ruling on First Amendment rights and public funding for the arts, calling viewpoint discrimination constitutionally impermissible. “Cities, not the courts, raise the taxes to fund services, and cities should make the decisions concerning how much, if any, of the public funds will be spent to support art,” he wrote. “Once a governing body chooses to fund art, however, the Constitution requires it to be funded in a viewpoint-neutral manner, that is, without discriminating among recipients on the basis of their ideology.”
Free expression advocates hailed the ruling—the first after the Supreme Court’s decision in NEA v. Finley to deal with constraints on content and viewpoint by government in awarding grants. The case may have impact on arts funding controversies elsewhere in the nation. In New York, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani thrives on politicizing public art, this decision undermines his newly-established art “decency” panel, which the Mayor created to influence how arts money is spent.
Svetlana Mintcheva, NCAC’s Arts Advocacy Coordinator, said the decision “lends powerful support to all who believe that we should be able to see and hear a wide diversity of ideas. Even when a small minority gives voice to beliefs that the wider constituency finds distasteful,” she said, “those beliefs cannot be silenced without trampling on First Amendment values. In government the majority rules; in the expression of ideas, a single individual has equal rights with the largest majority.”
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