ACLU and Film Festival Sue Michigan Lawmakers Over Free Speech Violations

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
March 20, 2007 12:00 am

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DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today filed a federal lawsuit charging that state officials violated the First Amendment by punishing the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) for screening films that the state deemed “objectionable.”

According to the ACLU lawsuit, the state withdrew program grants from the festival when organizers refused to censor films.

“The AAFF has stood as an uncensored channel for artists and filmmakers of diverse backgrounds for more than 40 years,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “It is now our job to ensure that the state legislators do not overreach and become the regulators of artistic expression. They may have great flexibility in determining which programs are worthy of funding, but they must do so in accordance with the First Amendment.”

Today’s lawsuit comes after the Michigan legislature announced that the festival would not be eligible for current funding (after having received funding for the past 10 years) because it had violated speech restrictions set by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA). The vague restrictions ban grants to any projects or activities that feature any material deemed “objectionable,” including displays of sex acts or flag desecration.

The legislature specifically accused the AAFF of violating its sex-act ban, and submitted a list of offensive films implicitly charged as pornographic. Two films on this list are “Boobie Girl” – an animated short, which tells the story of a girl who had always wanted an ample chest and finally ended up getting far more than she ever wished for – and “Chests” – a short film that features two shirtless men bumping chests in the fashion of athletes celebrating.

In August 2006, the governor signed a law that requires the MCACA to withhold undistributed grant payments from those who violate the speech restrictions, forbids recipients of the grants to create or promote art that violates the restrictions and gives the MCACA the authority to disqualify grant recipients from future funding for up to three years.

The state legislature began its scrutiny of the film festival last year after a special interest group called the Mackinac Center, which seeks to end government funding of the arts, singled out the film festival as an example of inappropriate funding. A representative of the Mackinac Center testified before members of the state legislature that some of the films exhibited were “pornographic,” a charge vehemently denied by the film festival.

“We didn’t ask for this fight,” said Jay Nelson, President of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. “But because we were singled out by special interest groups, it is now our duty to protect our artists and the values they cherish. By adhering to these restrictions we would have compromised our artistic integrity and everything the festival stands for.”

The Ann Arbor Film Festival Board of Directors recently voted unanimously to forego state funding for at least two years or as long as the restrictions are in place to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest.

The 45th Ann Arbor Film Festival kicks off tonight at the Michigan Theater at 7 p.m. with the announcement of this lawsuit at 8 p.m.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is represented by ACLU cooperating attorneys Jim Walsh and Susan Kornfield along with Moss and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg.

Today’s complaint is online at: www.aclumich.org/pdf/aaffcomplaint.pdf

For more information about the Ann Arbor Film Festival, go to http://www.aafilmfest.org

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