D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities Withdraws Amendment Allowing Organization to Defund ‘Lewd’ and ‘Overtly Political’ Work [Updated]

Washington, DC.


On Tuesday, the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities (DCCAH), which awards grants to Washington, D.C.–based artists and arts organizations, issued a new amendment to its contracts for grantees that enables the organization to terminate funding for work that could be considered “lewd, lascivious, vulgar, overtly political, excessively violent, constitutes sexual harassment, or is, in any other way, illegal.” This new requirement has already been met with pushback, with some organizations alleging that it could become a form of censorship. Earlier this afternoon, however, according to the Washington City Paper, the DCCAH withdrew the amendment from its contracts.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion to get the DCCAH to rescind the amendment before it got signed into effect. And, in a statement released before the amendment was with withdrawn, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also awards grants to artists and arts organizations, spoke out against the new DCCAH requirement. Joel Wachs, the president of that New York–based organization, said in a release, “The amendment is a blatant attack on free speech and a direct threat to all artists and nonprofit organizations that produce challenging work, provide diverse perspectives, and confront social and/or political issues that are of vital importance to their communities. As a government agency, CAH has a responsibility to uphold First Amendment rights; it should immediately retract the amendment, which has stifling implications for freedom of artistic expression.”

The latest batch of DCCAH grantees were named on October 1. Among them were the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Georgetown Business Improvement District, and the Shakespeare Theatre. Under the withdrawn amendment, in order for these grantees to collect their awards, they would have had sign now a contract that could allow the grands to be defunded.

News of the amendment led arts leaders and activists in the D.C. area to fear for the organization’s future work. Peter Nesbett, the executive director of the D.C.-based organization Washington Project for the Arts, told ARTnews, “Artwork or a piece of writing that criticizes the President of the United States could be deemed ‘overtly political’ and therefore a basis to terminate funding. This is a clear restriction on constitutionally protected free speech. Even if the DCCAH never acts on it, the amendment will encourage some artists to self-censor.”

He added, “D.C. artists, like all D.C. residents, already lack congressional representation and this amendment will result in further disenfranchisement. It bears frightening echoes of the type of overt suppression we’ve seen under dictatorial regimes in the past.”

Update 11/8/18, 3:40 p.m.: Shortly after this story was published, the Washington City Paper reported that the amendment was withdrawn. The post has been updated to reflect this.

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