The Ann Arbor Film Festival settled its civil liberties-infringement lawsuit against the state yesterday when the state agreed to change the law that stripped the event’s funding.
The festival had not received money from the state since Rep. Shelley Goodman Taub (R-Bloomfield Hills) introduced a bill in March 2006 that withheld money earmarked for the festival. Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the bill two months later. Before the bill passed, the state had provided aid to the festival for 10 years.
Funding for the arts – which includes the festival – is handled by the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, a division of the state’s Department of History, Arts and Libraries. Before the lawsuit, the council stipulated that money for arts enterprises could be withheld for up to three years if one of its three core parameters weren’t met: no desecration of the U.S. flag, no depiction of sex acts and no representation of religious symbols with fecal matter.
A strict interpretation of the “no sex acts” phrase led to content in films from March’s festival – specifically the films “Boobie Girl” and “Chests” – being dubbed pornographic. “Boobie Girl” is a light-hearted, animated short about insecurity and development in young women, and “Chests” depicts men bumping their torsos together.
Neither film depicts actual sexual acts.
Still, former State Rep. Leon Drolet (R-Clinton Twp.) said at the time that the films’ contents were “pornography so bad, no one will buy it.”
Shelli Weisberg, the legislative director for the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the funding reduction violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
“It’s pretty clear they were censoring the material to a degree that was unconstitutional,” Weisberg said.
The settlement removes the legislation’s specific bans on sex, flag destruction and fecal representations of religious symbols, and replaces it with language used by the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA’s rules do allow funding for art deemed obscene, but the definition of obscenity is less strict and less specific.
The new language says art “will be judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the people of this state.” If the art can’t adhere to those principles, the state doesn’t have to fund it.
Weisberg said the rule alteration was a significant step for assuring free speech.
“The bigger victory was getting the language changed,” Weisberg said
Christen McArdle, the AAFF’s executive director, said she hopes this victory will translate into momentum for the festival, which is four months away.
“It’s very ‘get back to work’ for us,” McArdle said. “We knew this day was coming. We worked really hard to get here.”