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."