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October 01, 1999 12:15pm
Majority of Public Support Brooklyn Museum's First Amendment Right to Display Controversial Art
Source: PRNewswire
by: First Amendment Center

NEW YORK, Oct. 1 /PRNewswire/ -- A majority of Americans say the Brooklyn Museum of Art should be allowed to display the controversial ``Sensation'' exhibit, according to a new poll conducted Wednesday and Thursday by the First Amendment Center and the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

By a margin of 57 to 39 percent, Americans agreed that the museum should have the right to show the exhibit, which has recently stirred up controversy for its inclusion of a painting of the Virgin Mary surrounded by elephant dung and cut-outs of pornographic pictures.

Likewise, a majority of Americans (59%) say that the government should not be able to ban the exhibit even though public funds are used to support the Museum.

``These results are good news for artists on two fronts: Most Americans believe that art is valuable enough to be funded by government and important enough to be protected from government,'' said Kenneth A. Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. ``The First Amendment doesn't require government to fund art. But once a funding decision is made, government officials cannot withhold money because they disapprove of specific ideas. This survey suggests that Americans understand and respect that distinction.''

Ken Dautrich, director of the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut said, ``The assumption by many that the Brooklyn Museum event is being met with strong public opposition is just not true. Americans prefer that museums be free to display art that they think is appropriate.''

The survey also found overwhelming support for the rights of Americans to see for themselves what the exhibit is all about. Eighty-five percent agreed that people have the right to attend museums that have art that may be offensive to others. Three in five Americans (61%) ``strongly agreed'' with this principle.

These findings do not mean that Americans approve of the type of art which is causing the Brooklyn Museum controversy. Lawrence McGill, director of research at the Media Studies Center, said, ``When asked whether or not, in principle, people should be allowed to display in a public place art that might be offensive to others, a majority (54%) disagree. However, it is clear from other findings in this study that a government-mandated solution to this problem is even more disagreeable to the public than is the art work itself.''

The survey also documents strong public concern about the potential damage to the First Amendment that could be done if this kind of exhibit were to be banned.

Three-quarters of the country (73%) agreed that ``it is dangerous to allow government to ban this exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, because allowing the ban makes it easier for government to ban other exhibits in the future.'' Similarly, three-quarters of those polled (73%) agreed that ``regardless of how I feel about the Brooklyn Museum exhibit itself, banning art from public places is something that violates Americans' right to free expression.''

Not only do Americans blanch at the thought of the government banning potentially offensive art, they express similar concerns about government censorship in other areas as well.

Three-quarters of Americans (77%) disagreed that ``government should be able to ban books from public libraries that contain content that might be offensive to others.'' A majority (60%) ``disagreed strongly'' with this statement. Likewise, three-quarters of Americans (75%) disagreed that ``government should be able to ban performers or plays from public auditoriums that include content that might be offensive to others.'' Fifty percent ``disagreed strongly'' with this statement.

Americans also continue to show support for public funding of the arts and disagree with the idea that public funding should be contingent on the content of art works.

Three in five Americans (64%) support public funding for the arts in general. Most Americans (60%) say that the display of potentially offensive art should not be grounds for cutting public funding for the Brooklyn Museum. Three-quarters of the public (73%) rejects the idea that government should be able to withdraw funding from libraries that have books that may be offensive to some people.

As of September 30, 1999, 25% of the country said they had heard ``a lot'' or ``some'' about the controversy surrounding the ``Sensation'' exhibit. Half of the country (53%) said they had not heard about it.

Kenneth Paulson and Lawrence McGill are available for interviews about the survey or the program. Please contact Sheila Owens, 212-317-6517 or Gene Policinski, 615-342-0328. Ken Dautrich also is available for interviews. Please contact him at 860-486-2579.

About the survey:

The survey was conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis (CSRA) at the University of Connecticut by telephone with a scientific sample (RDD) of American adults. A total of 502 interviews were conducted on Sept. 29 and Sept. 30. Sampling error is +/- 4-5% at the 95% confidence level.

The First Amendment Center, Newseum/NY and the Media Studies Center are operating programs of The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan, international foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people. The foundation pursues its priorities through conferences, educational activities, publishing, broadcasting, online services, fellowships, partnerships, training, research and other programs.

The Freedom Forum was established in 1991 under the direction of Founder Allen H. Neuharth as successor to the Gannett Foundation, which was created by Frank E. Gannett in 1935. The Freedom Forum does not solicit or accept financial contributions. Its work is supported by income from an endowment now worth more than $1 billion in diversified assets.

The Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of public opinion. Formerly the survey unit of The Institute for Social Inquiry, which housed the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, CSRA has been conducting surveys since 1979 and is nationally and internationally recognized as a leader in the field of public opinion research.

SOURCE: First Amendment Center

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