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The Real Lesson Of The Amiri Baraka Scandal

Thursday, Oct. 10, 2002

Recently, New Jersey's poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, has been the center of considerable and deserved controversy.

Baraka wrote in his poem "Somebody Blew up America" the following lines: "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/ To stay home that day/ Why did Sharon stay away?"

Apparently, Baraka was republishing a long-discredited and anti-Semitic rumor that Israelis were not killed in the September 11 attacks. This is a rumor that is particularly hurtful since citizens of Israel, like those of so many other nations, did indeed perish in the attacks - and the last thing their grieving families need is to hear that fact doubted.

As a result of the poem, the Governor of New Jersey called for Baraka's resignation. But Baraka intends to fight the issue out, in court if necessary, and seeks to testify at hearings on proposed legislation that would, if enacted, oust him.

This is a mess, but it is a mess that could have been prevented had New Jersey not gotten into the arts-funding business in the first place.

The Reasons Some May Oppose Firing Baraka

Some might rail against the Governor's decision to take money back simply because he does not like what the recipient has written - particularly from an artist whose vocation is to write. After all, one could argue that the poet laureate's very job is to write poetry as he sees fit.

Moreover, there is something unseemly about the government withdrawing funding it had already provided, because of the content of the expression. "Content-based" penalties on free speech are subject to particularly careful scrutiny pursuant to U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

In addition, while it is Baraka's poem that may cost him his job today, it could be another, more worthy poem that loses a future poet laureate hers. In general, it is never good to have a writer work under the chill of possible censorship - knowing that if he or she transgresses boundaries, funding may be lost.

How the Constitution Provides For A Thriving Private Market for Speech

Public funding for art is unnecessary - especially since the Constitution already lays the groundwork for a lively private marketplace of expression, including artistic expression.

It does so not only by establishing strong First Amendment rights, but also by giving Congress the power to create a federal copyright system, which Congress did soon after the Framing. In short, it confers not only the right to speak, but the right to get paid when your original speech is copied by another.

In the context of this system, we need state-funded art about as much as we need a state-owned newspaper. Fortunately, in our society, artists - like journalists - can speak, and make money for that speech, without relying on, or asking for, government support.

They need not worry about the government's approval - only that of the marketplace. The people have the power to make an author a millionaire (Is the government likely to fund the next Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or Anne Rice? I doubt it.) They also have the power to drive that writer into another line of work by refusing to buy.

At the same time, the First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring speakers on the basis of the content of their expression. These two elements together make the lively free marketplace of expression that fills the United States' newspapers, books, music, and motion pictures.

In sum, the Constitution creates the means for political and artistic expression - and crucially, for political and artistic dissent.

How Government Funding Corrupts the Arts and Causes Controversy

The system is corrupted when the government funds the art so crucially needed to critique the status quo, including the government. Artists shouldn't have to worry about biting the hand that feeds them - for if they do, they may dull their teeth so much they won't be able to bite at all.

An artist worth watching is, more likely than not, going to turn government funds toward ends that irritate the masses - producing art that is novel and hard to understand, or pornographic, or perverse, or aggressive. The result, inevitably, is controversy.

To avoid the conundrum, the government must choose the artistic milquetoasts that speak to the majorities. That is hardly an investment worthy of public funds, especially since private majorities are already inclined to support such works. (If you doubt it, pay a quick visit to your local multiplex.)

Why Government Funding Will Never Truly Help the Arts

Amiri Baraka has the absolute right to believe whatever he wants about Sept. 11 and the Israelis, no matter how strongly it is contradicted by all available evidence, and no matter how many times it has been thoroughly debunked. He also has the right to express his views, no matter how ridiculous. But he has no right for the government to fund those views.

The private arts community needs to rethink its pursuit of government money for support; such funding will never go to its most interesting and unusual works - often the ones that most deserve it. As with religion, what is best about art in the United States traditionally has been that which is free from government oversight, coercion, and funding - not that which the government itself has sponsored.

The majority will support the widely palatable works, so that the government does not need to. Meanwhile, private funds, including foundation funds, should go to the artist with the new vision, the striking challenge to settled expectations.

That is the pathway to freedom for artists and for all of us. The government's funding is nothing more than meddling where it does not belong.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Her email address is

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