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Let People Choose

July 30, 1989

As a character in a recent popular novel observed: There are things that are necessary evils, and there are things that are more evil than necessary. In a free society, tolerance of offensive speech is one of those necessary evils, particularly when that speech involves the expression of political or artistic ideas. In fact, when it comes to those two areas of speech, it can be said that the moral dichotomy between freedom and license is a distinction without a difference. Similarly, the evils engendered by censorship nearly always outstrip the imagined necessity.

Consider the controversy over congressional funding of the National Endowment for the Arts, which gives money to public institutions such as symphony orchestras, theaters and art museums. Not long ago, a few senators and congressmen discovered that the endowment had helped finance a retrospective of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, some of whose images have homoerotic themes, and a group exhibit including photos by Andres Serrano, whose pictures depict the abuse of religious icons. This is distasteful stuff, which quickly would have dropped from view had it not been seized upon by a little band of opportunists.

Those in the House simply slapped the endowment with a token cut in its budget. In the Senate, however, Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) induced his colleagues to approve a measure that would deny federal money to the two institutions that mounted the controversial shows. It also would prohibit use of federal funds to "promote. . .obscene or indecent materials . . .or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion."

Putting aside the fact that Helms' blacklisting of two organizations looks like an illegal bill of attainder, his proposed limitations on speech are so broad that their imposition would be not only unconstitutional, but also laughable. Public television, for example, could not have aired the acclaimed production of "Brideshead Revisited," Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece of Christian redemption, since it depicts a homosexual affair. No federal funds could be used to stage a public reading of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," nor, for that matter, of James Joyce's "Ulysses." Atheists could challenge museums' use of federal money to acquire old master paintings with religious themes.

The House and Senate versions of the National Endowment's appropriation now will go to a conference committee for reconciliation. Sober lawmakers will see the choice for what it is: Either Congress will preserve the people's right to choose for themselves what art they will see or that choice will be made for them by a bargain-basement Savonarola.

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