This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—November 5

1996—If the First Amendment means anything, surely it must mean that the government must be open to funding a piece of “performance art” in which the performer smears chocolate on her breasts and another in which the performer urinates on the stage and turns a toilet bowl into an altar by putting a picture of Jesus on the lid. Or so some minds imagine.

In Finley v. National Endowment for the Arts, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit rules that the NEA’s governing statute violates the First Amendment by providing that NEA grant decisions shall “tak[e] into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.” As Judge Andrew Kleinfeld marvels in dissent:

“First Amendment law has taken some odd turns lately. We now live in a legal context prohibiting display of a cross or menorah on government property. But if a cross is immersed in urine, a government grant cannot be withheld on the ground that the art would offend general standards of decency and respect for the religious beliefs of most Americans. The government, under today’s decision, cannot even consider ‘general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public’ when it gives artists grants. Yet we penalize private employers for slowness in firing employees who do not show decency and respect for other employees. This self-contradictory silliness is not built into the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment does not prohibit the free exercise of common sense.”

On review, the Supreme Court reverses the Ninth Circuit, with only Justice Souter in dissent, though the approaches of Justice O’Connor’s majority opinion and Justice Scalia’s opinion concurring in the judgment differ dramatically. As Scalia puts it: “Those who wish to create indecent and disrespectful art are as unconstrained now as they were before the enactment of the statute. Avant-garde artistes such as [the chocolate-smearer and the urinator] remain entirely free to épater les bourgeois; they are merely deprived of the additional satisfaction of having the bourgeoisie taxed to pay for it.”

Most Popular

U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More