Standing Against Censorship—Again

Good afternoon. I’m Alisa Solomon, the executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay
Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York, and I’m glad to be here on behalf of
CLAGS to voice our strong objection to Mayor Giuliani’s so-called Cultural Affairs Advisory
Commission. We at CLAGS are not fooled by the Mayor’s disingenuous assertions that this committee
is merely a group of concerned citizens exercising their free speech in offering him their advice, for
we recognize many of the members as long-time activists in the effort to squelch dissident
viewpoints and legislate their own narrow morality. Nor are we fooled by the mayor’s professions as
an opera queen, even if he does like to put on a dress now and then, for we know his abysmal
record on support for the arts, public space, and free expression, and we recognize the deep threats
of his policies to the open exchange of ideas upon which democracy depends.
I’ll leave the issue of unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination that the Mayor’s efforts imply to
the legal scholars among us today. What I’d like to offer, instead, is a brief comment on the context
in which the Mayor takes this appalling action, for it is linked to his sustained attacks on small arts
institutions, community spaces, public education, and other activities at the heart of a vibrant
Let’s start by being clear on one important point: despite his protestations that he wants to save
the arts from perversion and blasphemy, the Mayor is no friend to the arts. Year after year, his budget
proposal has called for the absolute gutting of the Department of Cultural Affairs — indeed he
actually referred to city council support for some 450 independent theaters, museums, dance
companies and other arts organizations as “political pork.” His arts policy, from the day he took
office, has been to shore up the big tourist-drawing institutions at the expense of smaller groups;
meanwhile, giddily selling off public building to private developers, he has evicted one arts group
after another. At the same time – and here the hypocrisy in his complaints that the Brooklyn Museum
is misusing public funds by trying to make a buck is downright chutzpadik – the mayor has
repeatedly proposed in his budget that in order to be eligible for city funds, arts groups demonstrate
that at least 50 percent of their income comes from private sources.
This is no coincidence. The more than decade-long battle over the National Endowment for the
Arts made it all too clear that the arts are a powerful wedge for attacking the very principle of public
funding. And indeed, among the people on the Mayor’s so-called advisory panel are aggressive
attackers of funding for the City University and other public institutions. If the Mayor would move to
defund or evict a museum for including work that some people find offensive, what’s next? Cutting
faculty lines at CUNY because he prefers a conservative curriculum and phony appeals to a
misguided definition of standards? It’s already happening.
Perhaps what’s most dangerous in the Mayor’s policy is his specious claim that he is protecting
taxpayers from being offended, as if those who appreciate the artwork he objects to don’t also pay
taxes. Thus in declaring whose opinions will have access to our dwindling public space and whose
won’t, the Mayor is asserting who counts as a citizen and who doesn’t. What is at stake here is not
simply tax dollars for so-called “offensive speech,” but public space for different, and yes, sometimes
discomforting points of view. We at CLAGS believe that minority or controversial views must not only
be tolerated, but that indeed, they should be welcomed and encouraged for their positive contribution
to the discourse and debate that are essential to a democracy.

On April 5, CLAGS
joined artists,
lawyers, civic
leaders, and
representatives of
free speech and arts
organizations such
as the New York
Civil Liberties Union,
the National
Coalition Against
Censorship, and
People for the
American Way, at a
press conference to
announce their
opposition to Mayor
Rudoloph Giuliani’s
appointment of an
arts “decency
panel.” This is Alisa
Solomon’s press