The following is a letter to the major of Berkeley, CA, voicing concern over City Arts Commission’s blanket ban on art containing guns.
The Honorable Mayor Tom Bates
November 7, 2008
Dear Mayor Bates,
I am writing on behalf of the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of over 50 national non-profit organizations united in defense of free expression, to voice our concern over City Arts Commission’s blanket ban on art containing guns. The ban caused the recent cancellation of the Art of Democracy exhibition scheduled for display at the Addison Street Windows Gallery, as the exhibition organizers preferred to withdraw the show rather than selectively censor four of the participating artists.
While we sympathize with the City’s desire for a world without guns or violence, the decision to put a blanket ban on all art including guns is not only unproductive, it threatens to silence important political speech. The recent incident involving the four Art of Democracy posters, which express strong views on US foreign policy, is a clear example of the type of serious political expression that the ban can suppress. To suppress political speech, which enjoys the highest constitutional protection, a government venue has to have a significant interest—in security, public safety or the like.
It is hard to see how the City can demonstrate such an interest given the nationwide presence of guns and weaponry in war memorials, murals, and film posters, just to enumerate what one can see in the street. In fact, one of Berkeley’s iconic murals, the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue, contains guns. In this context there doesn’t seem to be any legitimate justification for banning the representations of guns from a public gallery. Indeed, according to the organizers, no other venue among the fifty to host the Art of Democracy exhibition around the country has censored the show.
We urge the City of Berkeley to review its guidelines and uphold its proud tradition of free speech. We all want to see fewer guns and less violence in the world, but suppressing a discussion of violence just because it graphically refers to violence, would not accomplish that goal.
Arts Program Director