The National Portrait Gallery Betrays Constitutional Principles by Censoring Controversial Viewpoints:
A joint statement by the National Coalition Against Censorship, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, AICA-USA, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Association of American Publishers, Catholics for Choice, Defending Dissent Foundation, District of Columbia Advocates for the Arts, Advocates for the Arts District of Columbia Arts Center, The First Amendment Project, Provisions Library: Resources for Arts and Social Change, Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, Washington Project for the Arts, and The Woodhull Freedom Foundation
The removal of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video Fire in My Belly from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in response to pressure from the Catholic League and Republican Members of Congress is a shameful assault on First Amendment principles, which preclude government officials from using their financial and political power to determine what viewpoints should and should not be allowed into a public museum.
The video was part of Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, an exhibition exploring issues of sexuality and specifically gay sexuality. After a sensationalizing review of the show published on CNSNews.com (formerly the Conservative News Service, a news website owned by the Media Research Center) the Catholic League objected to the exhibition and specifically David Wojnarowicz’ video, a work which is part death elegy about the artist’s mentor and lover Peter Hujar and part angry tirade about the AIDS epidemic. The video uses, among many others, images of crucifixes.
The Catholic League called the video “hate speech.” Soon Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumptive incoming House speaker, and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), as well as some other Republican legislators, joined the League in demanding the cancellation of the show, as well as threatening future funding to the Smithsonian. Yielding to political pressure, the Gallery’s director, Martin Sullivan, removed Wojnarowicz’s video from the exhibition on November 30th.
Anybody is entitled to criticize an art show but First Amendment principles bar government officials from suppressing controversial viewpoints and imposing the values held by one religious group on society at large. The National Portrait Gallery cannot and should not tailor its programming to promote the views of certain interest groups at the expense of others. Taxpayer funds go to maintain a vibrant and diverse cultural sphere that serves all Americans not just Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, Christians or Jews. We may differ on cultural or social issues and argue about these issues – in the press, in public spaces, in galleries and performance spaces, but government officials cannot use financial leverage as a threat to silence those with whom they disagree. In 1998, while upholding the so-called NEA decency clause, the US Supreme Court warned that serious First Amendment problems would be raised were the government “to leverage its power” to fund art “into a penalty on disfavored viewpoints.”
The Catholic League may insist that religious symbols are its property and others (especially homosexuals) cannot use them, however, a national museum is barred by First Amendment principles, as well as by its mission to serve all Americans, from enforcing those views on the rest of us. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in 1952, “the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them…It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine."
The National Portrait Gallery’s failure to stand up for its own curatorial selection and for the free speech rights of artists and museum visitors is likely to have a chilling effect on future programming. Once the institution has caved in to political pressure from religious groups and suppressed work deemed “sacrilegious” by those groups, it's inevitable, as the Supreme Court warned in 1952, that it will yield to “the most vocal and powerful orthodoxies” and “find it virtually impossible to avoid favoring one religion over another.”
The Smithsonian, of which the National Portrait Gallery is part, is a public trust serving the interests of all Americans. It betrays its mission the moment it ejects a work whose viewpoint some dislike.