San Antonio’s city council has agreed to pay the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center $550,000 for cutting the group’s funding four years ago.
The money is part of a settlement reached in the center’s "viewpoint discrimination" lawsuit, which was prompted by a previous council’s actions. Negotiations began in May to end the lawsuit after U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia chided the council for violating free speech, equal protection and open meetings laws when it cut $62,000 in taxpayer support for the nonprofit group.
The settlement includes a consent decree that prohibits the city from engaging in "viewpoint discrimination" for such funds and requires it to establish clear criteria for future art projects.
Free Expression Organizations Celebrate Esperanza Center’s Landmark Legal Victory
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 16, 2001
Free expression and arts organizations around the country today celebrated a federal judge’s decision that the City of San Antonio violated the First Amendment rights of the Esperanza Center when it stripped the organization of its city arts funding in 1997. The ruling is the first to follow up on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley which analyzed the extent to which government in awarding arts funding could consider the content and viewpoint expressed in an arts organization’s presentations. The effects of the decision are sure to be felt nationwide, including in New York where Mayor Guiliani has appointed a decency commission to review arts grants.
In Finley, the Supreme Court had approved a law that required the National Endowment for the Arts to consider "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" because that the law did not compel the NEA to actually deny any grant application. The Court warned however that if a government were in fact "to leverage its power to award subsidies on the basis of subjective criteria into a penalty on disfavored viewpoints," such an act would violate the First Amendment.
Judge Orlando Garcia ruled that Esperanza was so penalized for expressing its viewpoint—namely the promotion of social and economic justice-through its arts program. The City’s decision to remove the group’s designated funding from the 1998 budget therefore violated the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of speech and equal protection. The city council had made its decision following a campaign that had characterized Esperanza as "pro-homosexual," "pro-abortion" and anti-"family values." Judge Garcia also found that the city violated the Texas open meetings law.
"This is a tremendous victory for the Esperanza Center and for all arts organizations nationwide," said David Greene, Executive Director of the First Amendment Project. "Esperanza has established that cultural funding cannot be used to endorse a single culture or punish unpopular political views."
The lawsuit was closely watched by arts and free expression organizations around the country. More than 25 organizations representing, among others, visual artists, musicians, writers, publishers, booksellers, dancers, filmmakers, and theater owners spanning the mainstream to the avant garde had issued a statement of support for Esperanza when the lawsuit was filed in August 1998. The list has grown to almost sixty in the two and a half years since.
"Small, but vocal groups across the country continue to insist that taxpayers should not support art that offends them. Perhaps, the most egregious example is in New York where Mayor Guiliani has convened a ‘decency commission’ to review the work presented by every single arts organization that receives funding from the city," said Svetlana Mintcheva, coordinator of the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Arts Advocacy Project. "As a result, this decision which acknowledges that forcing diverse voices into political silence through selectively denying them funding is constitutionally impermissible, resonates strongly on the national level."
The following join in celebrating this important victory for freedom of artistic expression:
For more information contact:
David Greene, Executive Director
First Amendment Project
Svetlana Mintcheva, Arts Advocacy Coordinator
National Coalition Against Censorship