Joint Statement of Free Expression and Arts Organizations Opposing Mayor Giuliani’s "Decency" Subcommittee

The undersigned organizations oppose the formation of a "decency standards" subcommittee determining restrictions as to what art could be displayed in publicly funded institutions in New York City. Deaf to the outcry of protest, which followed his promise to form such a committee, on Tuesday, April 3, 2001, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani officially appointed members to a cultural affairs advisory commission whose only reason for existence appears to be the new "decency standards" subcommittee. A cultural affairs advisory commission was in existence before Giuliani came into office but was left to lapse in the late nineties. It never played an active role during Giuliani’s term.

The formation of a decency committee is the latest in a series of efforts by Mayor Giuliani to restrict artistic freedom in New York City. Just last year, the Mayor settled on appeal after losing a case filed by the Brooklyn Museum in response to his attempt to evict the museum and effectively shut it down.

If it remains an advisory group, the decency committee would not be able to enforce the standards it establishes unless the Mayor’s office takes action. Any attempt, however, to put into action viewpoint-restrictive decency standards and to deny funding on the basis of individual pieces of art that might be provocative, or, indeed, offensive to some, would violate the First Amendment. When, in NEA v. Finley, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" as a consideration to be taken into account by grant-giving bodies, it also stated that there would be serious constitutional problems if decency standards were used to discriminate against works of art based on their religious or political content. An artwork critical of the practices of a particular religion could offend some representatives of that religion; nevertheless, the government has no more constitutional right to suppress that work than to censor the ideas it represents.

Even acting as an advisory group, the committee could potentially have a chilling effect on the arts in New York City. A museum might have to look at new work through Giuliani eyes and weigh its chances in court before making a decision. City funding is awarded to practically all arts institutions in New York. An imposition of restrictions attached to the awarding of public funding would leave the city with art that is either market oriented enough to be shown in commercial gallery spaces or conforms to a set of moral standards established by Mayor Giuliani. The relative homogeneity of the Mayor’s hand-picked cultural affairs advisory commission raises questions about how far he is willing to go to gather viewpoints that may differ from his own. But no committee can ever fully represent the rich diversity of opinions, ideas, and beliefs that exist in this city and in contemporary art?and one that came close would never be able to agree on a universal set of standards.

Given that funding is a powerful factor in determining who gets to speak and who doesn’t, refusing funding to a particular type of expression based on its "offensive" content is censorship. The choice is not between art that is inoffensive and art that is controversial, but between freedom and government control.

National Coalition Against Censorship
New York Civil Liberties Union
People For the American Way Foundation
New York Foundation for the Arts
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
PEN American Center
National Association of Artists Organizations
College Art Association
Theatre Communications Group
The Creative Coalition
The First Amendment Project
Boston Coalition for Free Expression
Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

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