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Newport Museum in Court Over NEA Oath

December 18, 1990|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — Attorneys for the Newport Harbor Art Museum and the Bella Lewitzky Dance Foundation asked a federal judge Monday to declare unconstitutional the National Endowment for the Arts' anti-obscenity oath.

The attorneys argued that the controversial NEA provision, which required arts groups applying for 1990 grants to certify the content of art or dance works when applying for federal grants, places a "potential chill" upon free speech.

Additionally, the vagueness of the anti-obscenity stipulation--its lack of clear-cut standards and procedural safeguards--violate the arts groups' right to due process of law, the attorneys argued.

At stake is not only the anti-obscenity provision, which has been dropped for 1991 grantees, but also two grants totaling $172,000 to the Newport museum and the dance company that were awarded but not distributed to the groups because they refused to sign the provision.

U.S. District Judge John G. Davies declined to make an immediate decision about granting a summary judgment in the case.

James V. Selna, a Newport Harbor trustee and an attorney with O'Melveny & Myers, which is representing the museum, said he expects a ruling in a week or 10 days.

Last year, in response to protests over federal support for a few controversial art exhibits, new legislation required 1990 recipients of NEA grants to sign an agreement that they produce or exhibit no "obscene" work. No grant money is being released to recipients unless they sign.

Newport Harbor was to receive a total of $100,000 for three separate grants, and the Lewitzky Foundation was awarded a $72,000 grant. NEA funding represents slightly more than 5% of the museum's $1.8-million operating budget this year and about 8.5% of the dance company's budget of about $850,000.

In September, Newport Harbor became the third arts organization--and first museum--in the country to file a lawsuit seeking a court order barring the obscenity certification. The Lewitzky Foundation filed a similar brief in July. On Oct. 23, the court denied an NEA motion to dismiss the lawsuits.

On Nov. 19, the museum submitted a request for funds for three of the exhibitions covered by the grants, but with a paragraph stating its noncompliance with the obscenity certification.

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