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    Court clashes over free speech Essay

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    America’s courtrooms have become the new battle front in the continuing culture wars.

    Currently stuck in a quagmire of litigation is the documentary Damned in the USA. Winner of a 1991 International Emmy, the film examines the ongoing controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts’ funding of controversial and sexually explicit art. British director Paul Yule and co-producer Jonathan Stack filmed an interview with ultraconservative crusader Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association and juxtaposed it with images from the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. The film aired to accolades on Britain’s Channel 4 and was subequently shown on Swedish and Spanish television. But when the film was featured at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at New York’s Museum of Natural History, Rev. Wildmon filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit claiming the filmmakers. had violated a contract requiring his organization’s permission for distribution of the film in the U.S. In April, Channel 4 and a group of film, religious and civil liberties organizations countersued, arguing that the contract merely forbade making the interview available to other media and only gave Wildmon copyrights to his interview. A federal court hearing was set for May 1 in New York’s southern district.

    A jury in Chattanooga, Tenn. has rejected that city’s attempt to ban a performance of the musical Oh! Calcutta! The controversy began last year when city officials refused to permit the show’s producer to lease either of two municipally owned theatres. Chattanooga went to civil court seeking judicial support for its decision, arguing that the show was obscene under community standards and in violation of local laws prohibiting public nudity. Although no jury was required for the civil suit, the judge empaneled an advisory jury. After a week-long trial, Oh! Calcutta! was found not to be obscene, even in Chattanooga.

    A Washington state judge has issued a partial judgment against the Janis Joplin estate, which had sued playwright Susan Ross and two producers who staged a play based on the life of the ’60s rock star. The Joplin estate claimed that the play Janis, which premiered in Seattle in May 1991, infringed the estate’s “right of publicity.” The estate claimed it had exclusive rights to use the name, persona and style of Joplin, and objected in particular to the second act of the play, which imitated a Joplin concert. The estate sold exclusive rights to Joplin’s persona to a New York producer who plans to open Love, Janis, a play written by Joplin’s sister Laura Joplin, next year on Broadway, followed by a film, radio special and release of a set of CDs and tapes. A friend of the court brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the right of publicity gives a celebrity’s estate control over commercial items such as souvenir T-shirts and mugs, but not over artistic endeavors.

    Canada, also experiencing the sturm und drang of freedom of expression disputes, has boldly broken new legal ground. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, set a precedent and expressly accepted the argument that pornography harms women. The decision bans sexual material that portrays violence toward or degradation of women, despite the obvious infringement on freedom of expression. The court’s new standard allows prosecutors to decide which materials violate community standards or tolerance and meet the test of “undue sexual exploitation.” It should be noted, however, that this decision did not overrule the Canadian law that protects sexually explicit material that is part of a serious theme or has an artistic purpose.

    Finally, the “NEA four” – Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller – are awaiting a judge’s decision on their pending suit against the Endowment, which charges the agency with unconstitutionally rejecting their grant applications.

    NEA on Record

    Sixteen playwrights have received 1992 fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts totaling $200,000 and ranging from $10,000 to $17,000. The recipients are Sheri Bailey of Venice, Calif.; Jon Robin Baitz, Kitty Chen, Richard Foreman, J.E. Franklin, Len Jenkin and Lanie Robertson of New York; Michael Erickson of Seattle; OyamO (Charles F. Gordon) of Ann Arbor, Mich.

    Also Philip Kan Gotanda of San Francisco; Syl Jones of Excelsior, Minn.; Ben L. Kreilkamp of Minneapolis; G.C.G. McKay of Kailua, Hawaii; Kathryn Schultz Miller of Cincinnati; Lanford Wilson of Sag Harbor, N.Y.; and Suzan L. Zeder of Austin, Tex.

    The NEA also awarded $1.3 million in 1992 Opera-Musical Theater grants. The 19 grants ranged from $5,000 to $59,300 and went to a diverse array of recipients.

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