Artistic Repression in America
by Barbara Dority
Published in the Humanist, May/June 1999
|My first "Civil Liberties Watch" column, which appeared in the
September/October 1990 Humanist, was entitled "The War on Rock
and Rap Music." It is, of course, a personal shock to realize that
this was more than eight and a half years ago. But the greater
offense is that, since that time, censorship of art in popular
culture has not declined; it has intensified and expanded.
|Whatever their medium or message and regardless of whether their
content is unpopular or upsets some people or is of poor quality,
artistic creations are protected by the First and Fourteenth
Amendments to the United States Constitution. The First Amendment
mandates that "Congress shall make no law
. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,"
while the Fourteenth Amendment extends that prohibition to state
and local governments.
|The government must maintain a "content neutrality" position
regarding expression; it cannot limit expression just because any one
person—or even the majority of a community—is offended by its
content. In the context of art and entertainment, this means
tolerating some works that we might find offensive, insulting,
outrageous, or just plain bad.
|The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment's
protection of artistic expression very broadly. It extends not only
to books, theatrical works, and paintings but also to posters,
television, music videos, comic books, and many other venues.
Essentially, protection is granted to anything the human creative
impulse produces, including nonverbal expression such as wearing a
symbol on one's clothing, dancing (including erotic and nude
dancing), or participating in a silent candlelight vigil.
|Many pro-censorship activists claim that only repression of
expression by government entities constitutes censorship. Most civil
libertarians don't share this view, maintaining that, when private
pressure groups succeed in their efforts to limit or bar access to
certain forms of expression, censorship has occurred.
|Like other forms of expression, protection of the artistic process
as a fundamental aspect of free speech rights is tested only when a
particular work hits a raw nerve. Art that doesn't confront is rarely
challenged. And ideas that don't provoke people have little need for
|Although attacks on the fine arts are certainly a problem, a much
more virulent strain of censorship plagues art in U.S. popular
culture. About a quarter of reported challenges include attempts to
restrict commercial television, movies, and music, as well as
photographs and films used in advertisements.
|The American entertainment industry has been the center of a vast
censorship controversy for at least twenty years. Religious political
extremists, presidential candidates, government officials, and others
continue to accuse Hollywood leaders of having "sold their souls" by
working to "debase our nation and threaten our children." During the
past eight years, the sponsors of more than 150 prime-time television
programs have been targeted by pressure groups claiming the
advertisers are sponsoring programs that contain anti-Christian
themes, profanity, sex, and violence and that "promote"
|Many questions immediately come to mind. Is there "good violence"
and "bad violence"? If so, who decides? Sports and news are at least
as violent as fiction—from the fights that erupt during televised
hockey games to the videotaped beating of Rodney King by a gang of
Los Angeles police officers, which was shown repeatedly on prime-time
television all over the world.
|If we are disturbed by images of violence or sex—or anything
else—we can change the channel, turn off the TV, or decline to go to
certain movies or museum exhibits. We can also exercise our own free
speech rights by voicing our objections to forms of expression we
|Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said that the remedy for
messages we disagree with or dislike in art, entertainment, or
politics is "more speech, not enforced silence." This is as true
today as it was when the justice said it in 1927.
|In 1991 and 1992, threats to video and music stores began to
increase; five stores in Nebraska were prosecuted for selling a rap
music album. The Justice Department continues its use of "multiple
prosecution" strategy to force book and film distributors to stop
selling all sexually oriented material.
|Where is most censorship of art taking place? In some pretty
surprising places, like on college campuses—places seen as arenas
where free expression and respect for ideas and creativity are highly
prized. The campuses of U.S. colleges and universities are the
settings for roughly one out of five art censorship incidents.
Increasingly, students are seeking the removal of art that offends
|A great deal of art censorship is also happening in public spaces,
such as city halls and libraries. Objections to sexual material and
religious content in art installed in such locations are greatly
amplified because they are so highly public and displayed in such
prominent locations. And hundreds of works of literature—from Maya
Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to John Steinbeck's Grapes
of Wrath—have been banned from public school libraries based on
their "sexual content." The list of challenged and censored books in
public schools has now grown into a book itself.
|As Americans live more of their lives in shared spaces, such as
office buildings, campuses, public parks, and other community
facilities, conflicts will continue as individuals attempt to assert
some measure of control over a rapidly changing social and cultural
environment. Art censorship is a popular tool across the political
spectrum, with both liberal and conservative groups using attacks on
art to advance their agendas. Reflecting this trend, many attacks on
art address specific political issues. Among the wide range of
targeted themes are racial and ethnic conflicts, abortion, the U.S.
flag, and police brutality.
|The banning of visual and theater arts that depict nudity is also
increasing. Nudity is being edited out of films by cable television
stations, paintings of nudes are being excluded from art exhibits,
and theatrical works that include nudity have been banned or altered
across the country.
|Artists are feeling pressure from government funding agencies to
steer clear completely of art that deals with issues of gender and
sexuality. Next in frequency of attack is art with "anti-religious
content," then homosexual content, then content alleged to be
|In Iowa several years ago, a high-school theater production of
Agnes of God was canceled when school officials decided it might be
offensive to Catholics. And in Homer, Alaska, a painting exhibited at
a local post office came under attack as "satanic" and "demonic"
because it includes pyramids. Post Office officials, reluctant to
enter a controversy, simply took it down.
|In the late 1980s, the Republican congressional leadership began a
campaign to eliminate three U.S. cultural agencies: the National
Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities,
and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which helps fund public
TV and radio). As a result of these attacks, Congress changed the law
in 1990 to require that all artwork even partially funded by the NEA
comply with "general standards of decency," a restriction the Supreme
Court let stand on June 25, 1998.
|In this climate, we can be sure that hidden and unacknowledged
compromises are being made by artists themselves. Those who have had
works challenged or whose work addresses controversial issues are
routinely censoring their own artistic impulses. Although most
self-censorship never comes to public light, I strongly suspect that
the greatest tragedy of these censorship campaigns is the art that is
|I should at least mention briefly the issue of art in cyberspace.
Although the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional last year,
the Communications Decency Act, which sought to impose wide-ranging
censorship on the Internet, has been followed by many other national
and state attempts to impose similar restrictions.
|With technologies constantly advancing—the Internet is just one
example—art and the ideas artists seek to communicate are more
readily accessible to many more people. So it isn't surprising that
there are those who seek to limit such means of communication,
arguing that all such expression must be restricted to what is
acceptable to all and to children in particular.
|Art in a free society is much more than a diversion. It
enlightens, educates, identifies societal problems, and raises
awareness. Each challenge to the freedom of artistic expression sends
a terrible message, particularly to young people: the way to address
"disagreeable" speech is to squelch it, demand its removal, deny its
funding, or cover it up.
|Art is humanity's search for truth and self-awareness. The
products of that search include art that confronts preconceptions and
stimulates the impulse to censor.
|But a free society is based on the principle that every individual
has the right to decide what art or entertainment he or she wants—or
doesn't want—to receive or create. When the human creative spirit is
not free, the infectious disease of censorship threatens us all.
|Barbara Dority is president of Humanists of Washington, executive
director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair
of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force.