Endowment for Arts Wins a Court Round In Obscenity Debate

THE ongoing controversy over whether Congress has the right to impose conditions over federal arts funding to artists whose work is deemed by some to be obscene roiled up again this week.

On Tuesday, United States District Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima, in Los Angeles, ruled that a law requiring the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to conform to a so-called decency clause when making grants was unconstitutional. The judge said the law violated the First Amendment because it was too vaguely worded. The ruling was in response to a suit brought by four solo performance artists whose work includes nudity, homosexual themes, and sexually explicit behavior, who were denied a total of $23, 000 in grants. The four filed suit demanding that their grants be reinstated.

"It's a great decision for artists across the country," said David Cole, a staff lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and one of the attorneys representing the artists. "It means that they can create art and seek government funding without fear that some government official will deny them funding on grounds of decency or politics."

Rep. Philip Crane (R) of Illinois, who is sponsoring a bill to abolish the NEA, said: "The government has every right, in using taxpayer money, to determine how it's spent."

The ruling is the latest controversy to hit the troubled, 25-year-old NEA. In 1989, its support of photographs by Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, which some deemed obscene and blasphemous, came under fire.

When NEA funding came up for renewal in 1990, some in Congress wanted to abolish it. The agency survived the highly publicized battle; but as a compromise, its legislative mandate stated that applicants were to be judged on the basis of "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public."

John Frohmnayer, former NEA head, who has said the language of the decency clause was unconstitutional, was fired by President Bush. In recent weeks, acting director Anne-Imelda Radice, who has come out in favor of the clause, informed Congress that she would not fund art depicting extreme violence or explicit sex. She recently vetoed grants to the List Visual Arts Center of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery.

Jill Collins, director of public affairs for the NEA, said it is reviewing the judge's decision. A statement was issued, saying that "grant awards ... have been made ..., and will continue to be made on the basis of artistic excellence." The US Justice Department can appeal the ruling.

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