August 16, 2004
Mayor John W. Hickenlooper
1437 Bannock Street, Ste. 350
Denver, Colorado 80202
Dear Mayor Hickenlooper,
The National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of 50 national non-profit organizations that collaborate to defend First Amendment rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, have been alerted to the recent removal of several works of art from an installation at Denver International Airport. This action has serious First Amendment implications, and we strongly urge you to reconsider.
The Luggage Project received approval from the DIA arts program and was installed at DIA on July 7, 2004. Two days later, on July 9, three of the works in the installation were removed, apparently in response to complaints from persons who believed that the pieces were "offensive," "disturbing," and "inappropriate." According to DIA officials, the removed artworks also violated an airport policy banning art containing "violence" or "political statements." The allegedly objectionable material included box cutters, red paint splatter, political bumper stickers, and toy missiles.
Official suppression of disfavored, unpopular, and controversial ideas and viewpoints is the chief evil targeted by the First Amendment. The works in question offer artists' reflections on the theme of travel, and include personal perspectives on recent national events. That they provoked discussion and thought is their virtue, not their defect. To silence dialogue on issues which lie at the center of American society is the most destructive kind of censorship; it violates not only the principle of free speech, but also disrupts the fundamental national ideal of democratic debate.
Plainly, complaints that the works are "offensive" triggered their removal. In responding as it did to these complaints, the city conferred its official stamp of approval on this viewpoint, while suppressing other views about the meaning and suitability of the art. Courts have consistently condemned government efforts to suppress particular viewpoints while permitting others to be expressed. Even the mere appearance of viewpoint discrimination has been enough for federal courts to strike down government display restrictions. (See AIDS Action Committee v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, 42 F.3d 1 (1st Cir., 1994).)
The removal of the pieces cannot be justified as an effort to rid the airport of reminders about the events of September 11th. This would be patently absurd. Airports across the country are replete with reminders of terrorism and national security issues, from the presence of armed uniformed officers to increased security provisions and signs about terrorism. Nor is the alleged policy against "violent" and "political" content an adequate explanation. First of all, it lacks credibility, given the murals by Leo Tanguma permanently installed in the airport. These murals contain dead bodies, machine guns, and demonic figures—images that, by comparison, highlight the innocuousness of the splattered paint at issue in the removed works. Second, it disregards the crucial value of political speech in a democratic society. And finally, such a general ban invites abuse, since the determination of what is "political" or "violent" is highly subjective. Such unbounded discretion is inconsistent with the First Amendment.
One of the three works initially removed from the installation was subsequently restored because, according to the official responsible, it was only "borderline offensive"—a fact that demonstrates the ultimate arbitrariness of the decision. The lack of consistency and the arbitrary exercise of discretion create a chilling effect on expression. Comparably vague standards of decision and the inevitably inconsistent enforcement they engender have persuaded federal courts to invalidate similar policies on First Amendment grounds. (See Planned Parenthood Association v. Chicago Transit Authority, 767 F. 2d 1225 (7th Cir., 1985); Hopper v. City of Pasco, 241 F.3d 1067 (9th Cir., 2001).)
For the above reasons, we urge you to reconsider the removal of artwork from "The Luggage Project." Such censorious action not only violates the principles of free expression that are enshrined in the First Amendment; it also contradicts the Denver International Airport's efforts to support the arts. Early this year, the Los Angeles International Airport rejected similar complaints about an arts installation, and instead embraced the idea that public art should promote open dialogue, not official orthodoxy. To remain a world-class airport renowned for its architectural and aesthetic achievements, DIA should do the same.
Director, Arts Program
National Coalition Against Censorship
ACLU of Colorado
cc: Denise Montgomery, Director, Mayor?s Office of Art, Culture and Film
Elbra Wedgeworth, President, City Council