In an 8-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled June 25 that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) can refuse to give federal money to artists whose work is considered indecent.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority, saying the policy "neither interferes with First Amendment rights nor involves constitutional vagueness principles." The law "admonishes the NEA merely to take 'decency and respect' into consideration," she wrote.
Lower courts had struck down the decency standard as too vague and unconstitutional. For many years the NEA has been under attack for funding offensive material at taxpayer expense (CT, Oct. 7, 1997, p. 88). In 1990, Congress restricted funding after the agency sponsored controversial photo exhibits, one of which featured a crucifix immersed in urine.
While many conservative groups are hailing the ruling, some NEA critics doubt there will be much improvement in arts funding. The NEA has a $98 million annual budget. The U.S. House voted 217 to 216 to dismantle the NEA last year, but a Senate panel approved a bill to finance the agency through 2002.1