Self-appointed guardians of our faith and morals cannot prevent a concert performance, like that of Lady Gaga, via court injunction or local government ordinance. It isn’t an issue of whether we are Lady Gaga fans or not - but whether we want to promote another era like those of the pogroms in Russia, Nazi genocide of the Jews during World War II and the Inquisition.
Nothing could be more dangerous than clerics who burn heretics because they feel mandated by God to do so. Proposing a boycott or citing how Lady Gaga violates religious sensibilities is acceptable. Seeking a legal remedy such as a TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) is curtailment of artistic freedom and that’s unacceptable.
The website of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of Florida quoted the late US president John F. Kennedy: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” Curtailment of artistic freedom is one of the most sensitive issues pertaining to our civil liberties. It’s said that artistic freedom is meant precisely for the art (or entertainment) that you don’t like.
Some of the greatest minds of the human race were subjected to varying degrees of oppression — some even tortured — during the Inquisition in Europe. Narrow-minded and superstitious clerics and Bishops could not fathom and tolerate brilliant new horizons that were explored by the finest minds of our race.
The Florida ACLU further stated: “Today, across the cultural spectrum, artistic freedom is under assault. Free expression in popular music, photography, painting, cinema and other arts is threatened by pressure from lawmakers, prosecutors and self-appointed guardians of morality and taste. Succumbing to that pressure, more and more music stores, museums, schools, theaters, television stations, bookstores and video shops are restricting the display or availability of images and words deemed to be offensive to one group of citizens or another.
The roots of contemporary efforts to curb free expression in the arts reach back to the early 1980s, when a backlash arose against the cultural freedom of previous decades. Religious fundamentalists and others, with overt support from the administration of President Ronald Reagan, began to advocate censorship of books, films and television in an effort to enforce cultural conformism. Today, we are reaping the harvest of that backlash as rap singers and museum directors are prosecuted for “obscenity,” performance artists are denied government grants and Congress passes new censorship laws.
Artistic expression has come under attack in other periods of our country’s history. In 1873, Congress passed a law that prohibited the mailing, shipping or importation of “obscene” and “immoral” matter. The law was used to ban the works of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Voltaire and other great authors, as well as printed information about sexuality and contraception.”
The Florida ACLU further stated: “The perception of obscenity in art is highly subjective. As Justice Douglas wrote, in his dissent in Miller, “what may be trash to me may be prized by others.” By authorizing our courts to decide what is morally acceptable, we turn them into censorship boards that impose the personal viewpoints and tastes of judges and juries on the rest of society.
Furthermore, formulating a precise definition of obscenity has proven to be impossible. Justice Potter Stewart summed up the problem with his famous one-liner: “I know it when I see it.” That assurance is of small comfort to artists, writers, publishers and distributors, who must navigate the murky waters of obscenity law trying to predict what judges will think.
The inherent subjectivity of any definition of obscenity has led to the suppression of constitutionally protected expression. Sometimes the suppression is direct and well publicized for example, the 1990 conviction of a Florida record storeowner for selling a certain album of rap music, and the prosecution, in the same year, of an Ohio museum director for exhibiting the works of a celebrated photographer. But even more pervasive is the “chilling effect” that vague standards have on writers and artists, pressuring them to engage in self-censorship to avoid running afoul of a legal definition that means different things to different people.
The First Amendment enshrines the principle that freedom of thought and expression are essential to a free society. In practice, the First Amendment’s guarantees mean that adults must be free to decide for themselves, without governmental interference, what to read, write, paint, draw, photograph, see and hear.”
The Florida ACLU added: “First of all, the ACLU defends freedom of expression, not the content of expression. Second, if we grant the government the power to censor “sleaze,” it must also have the power to decide what “sleaze” is. History reveals that the government tends to use such power over broadly to censor controversial material by calling it “sleaze.” Any involvement by the government in deciding which ideas are fit for public consumption robs you of your constitutional right to make that decision for yourself.”
For our future generations, and ourselves, we should protect artists and entertainers against the suppression of their artistic freedom. Book them if they cross the line but not before they get to the line.
Shakespeare: “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”
* * *