Archive for Saturday, March 3, 2001

N.Y. art ‘decency’ panel proceeds despite courts

March 3, 2001

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— Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is pushing ahead with plans for a "decency" panel to screen art at city-funded museums, shrugging off a Supreme Court ruling that legal experts said could stand in his way.

In a 5-to-4 decision this week, the high court said Congress acted illegally when it blocked lawyers in a government-financed legal services program from challenging welfare laws on behalf of their needy clients.

The decision, legal experts said, would make it more difficult for government to attach strings to public money when free-speech issues are at stake.

The ruling "eliminates (Giuliani's) panel as a serious option," said Burt Neuborne, legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, who argued the case.

"It's time that the mayor recognized that if he is funding museums, the decision of what is good art and what is bad art is up to the museums, it's not up to the politicians," Neuborne added.

The ruling "makes it even less likely that the mayor could prevail in his efforts to limit what museums in the city may display," said Floyd Abrams, the lawyer who represented the Brooklyn Museum of Art in its feud with Giuliani over the 1999 "Sensation" exhibit.

The mayor was undaunted.

"I don't think it will affect it," the mayor said when asked about the decision. "I didn't see anything in there that mentioned indecency, support for indecency."

Last month, Giuliani said he would set up a panel to slap "decency standards" on art after becoming outraged over a Brooklyn Museum show that included "Yo Mama's Last Supper," a photo by Renee Cox depicting Jesus as a naked woman.

Though controversial, Giuliani's idea for a screening panel is not without precedent.

Last year, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts began using a litmus test for taste for its programs after Gov. Jim Gilmore scolded officials for sponsoring a sexually explicit slide show. The guidelines say nothing specific about obscenity but were written after Gilmore told the state-supported museum it must "uphold community standards of decency."

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