Legal Principle at Issue
Whether a law requiring the National Endowment for the Arts to consider "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" before awarding grants to artistic projects is impermissibly viewpoint-based and unconstitutionally vague.
The clause was held to be "facially valid, as it neither inherently interferes with First Amendment rights nor violates constitutional vagueness principles."
In 1990, Congress amended the statute governing the National Endowment for the Arts to require that the NEA chairperson consider "general standards of respect and decency for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" when awarding art grants. Four artists—Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller, known collectively as the "NEA 4"—sued in federal court, claiming the so-called "decency clause" violated the First Amendment and forced artists to engage in self-censorship in order to obtain NEA funding. The trial judge ruled in favor of the "NEA 4," ruling that the decency clause was both unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed for "essentially the same reasons as the district court." The 9th Circuit determined the decency clause was void for vagueness and for violating the First Amendment’s general prohibition against content- and viewpoint-based discrimination.
Importance of Case
The Court did not express its usual heightened concern over viewpoint discrimination, because the statute only instructs the NEA to consider "decency and respect" rather than to make funding decisions based solely on those grounds. The decision seems to afford an opportunity for content- and even viewpoint-based laws to be ruled constitutional, as long as they do not directly target certain types of speech.
The decency clause only requires the NEA to consider "general standards of decency and respect" rather than directly precluding certain categories of speech. The nature of arts funding requires a certain level of content-based judgment. Because the NEA 4 did not allege "discrimination in any particular funding decision," the Court determined that it had not been presented with a grant denial on the basis of viewpoint.