The National Coalition Against Censorship is an alliance of 50 national non-profit organizations united in defense of free expression. We were disturbed to learn that a photo collage by George Jacobi and two sculptures by Eda Easton have been removed from the Mansfield Community Center because of individual complaints. We urge you to return the work to display as soon as possible. We also urge you to make sure the art selection and response to complaints policies the City adopts show respect for the First Amendment rights of artists, as well as for the audience’s right to have access to a wide range of artistic viewpoints.
It is our understanding that both Jacobi’s and Easton’s work was selected by the Arts Advisory Committee, put on display and subsequently removed based on complaints regarding its political and sexual content. Jacobi’s piece, which included images of the American flag, was reportedly taken down in response to a complaint by an Air Force veteran who was offended by what he perceived as an anti-war statement. According to the Hartford Courant your decision to remove the photo collage was spurred by the “potential for offending veterans we should have the utmost respect for in the community” and, in part, by the “risk of losing memberships over the matter.” The Courant also reported that the Easton sculptures were removed from view because of an angry mother’s complaint as to their sexual suggestiveness.
This incident raises serious questions regarding freedom of artistic expression, a fundamental liberty guaranteed under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The constitution undeniably protects the right of an artist to exhibit work that somebody might find disturbing, annoying, or offensive. As the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed, "If there is a bedrock principle of the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." (Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414, 1989)
As the exhibition is placed in a public building, serious constitutional issues are also raised as to what extent unarticulated, content and viewpoint-based decisions, based on a heckler’s veto rather than on artistic merit, may be used to justify the exclusion of works. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, considering a policy that excluded "controversial" artwork from a public exhibition space, recently stated: "the potential for abuse of such unbounded discretion is heightened by the inherently subjective nature of the standard itself. A ban on ‘controversial art’ may all too easily lend itself to viewpoint discrimination." Hopper v. City of Pasco, 241 F .3d 1067 (9th Cir. 2001).
In a similar situation in the fall of 2002, when several photographs were removed from an exhibit at the City of Hartford Office of Cultural Affairs, the decision was promptly reversed. Employees working in the building complained that the photographs were offensive. In response, Hartford’s Director of Human Services, who found the photographs “un-American,” ordered them removed. The photographs were restored to the exhibit immediately after the City of Hartford was made aware that their removal was likely to be in violation of the First Amendment and that the actions of the Director of Human Services exposed it to legal liability.
The very functioning of a democratic society depends on the ability of a diverse public to voice a variety of opinions without fear of retaliation by the government. We urge you to have George Jacobi’s photo collage and the two sculptures by Eda Easton returned to the Art Show as soon as possible.
We applaud the Town Council for requesting that a policy be drafted for selecting artwork for public buildings and for responding to complaints. The guidelines that Mansfield is planning to institute should recognize the freedom of artists to express diverse views, show respect for the curatorial judgment of the arts advisory committee, and affirm the rights of people in the community to see a wide range of artwork.
Showing art in administrative spaces is not only a way to show support for local artists, it is a way to enrich the whole community: the arts contribute to a positive cultural image of a community; they play an important educational role, sustain jobs, and stimulate the local economy. However, people in this country hold a variety of religious and moral beliefs. Individuals frequently disagree with ideas, whether they are spoken by public figures, expressed in art, the media, or elsewhere. That is their right. Government officials, however, should not embrace the beliefs of one group to the disadvantage of others. This concept is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which bars government from discriminating against expression – including artistic expression – because a group or an individual finds it offensive, sacrilegious, morally improper or otherwise offensive.
Art that is relevant to the present we live in frequently becomes controversial. This is a good thing. Art gives us as a society the possibility to be open about differences; it provides a safe space to explore conflicts. The NCAC has extensive experience in creating policies and procedures that would guarantee the viewpoint-neutral selection of artwork and establish a process for responding to potential complaints. We would be happy to send you some model guidelines and help the arts advisory committee in formulating the policies ordered by the town council.
We look forward to your response.