Lakewood Civic Center South
480 S Allison Pkwy
Lakewood, CO 80226-3127
Dear Mr. Rock,
The National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of 50 national non-profit organizations that collaborate to defend First Amendment rights, has been alerted to the recent removal of a part of Gayla Lemke’s ceramic work, Hope Stones, from the Conversations in Clay exhibition at the Lakewood Cultural Center. This action has serious First Amendment implications, and we strongly urge you to reconsider.
It is our understanding the piece was removed because you and several City Council members found the viewpoint expressed in it disagreeable and offensive: according to press reports, City Council members labeled the exhibition "anti-American," "anti-military," and you said that it was "disparaging? to men and women…in our armed forces." City Council members Tom Booher, Jackie Herbst, and Ray Elliot justified the decision to remove the piece that they found offensive on the basis that the exhibition was publicly funded. Such a position displays a disturbing misunderstanding of public officials’ obligations under the First Amendment.
The First Amendment is specifically intended to prevent government officials from suppressing views they find "offensive" (Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989)) or even "dangerous" (Regan v. Taxation with Representation of Washington, 461 U.S. 540, 548 (1983)). As the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion . . . " (West Virginia State Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943)).
This principle applies with equal force to publicly funded art programs. While government is under no obligation to fund the arts, once it has decided to do so, it cannot discriminate against unpopular viewpoints. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in National Endowment For The Arts v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998), the government may not employ the power of the purse "to have a ‘coercive effect’ calculated to drive ‘certain ideas or viewpoints from the marketplace.’"
For the above reasons, we urge you to restore the piece to the exhibition and to adopt a freedom of artistic expression policy for public events, along with a procedure for addressing complaints. A clearly articulated policy acknowledges the vital role that freedom of expression plays in our democracy, and procedures for addressing complaints or disputes that might arise from publicly displayed artwork will typically stave off most of these disputes. We will be happy to supply you with sample policies.
Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or concerns.
Director, Arts Program
National Coalition Against Censorship
ACLU’s press release