ACLU, Ann Arbor Film Festival Settle Free Speech Lawsuit with State

December 05, 2007

Detroit -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today that it has settled a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) against the State of Michigan. In exchange for the state legislature repealing unconstitutional restrictions on art funding, the ACLU agreed to voluntarily dismiss the lawsuit.

“We are thrilled that the state legislature has resolved this issue amicably,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “It is important that our legislators acknowledged that they are not the regulators of artistic expression and although they may have great flexibility in determining which programs are worthy of funding, they must do so in accordance with the First Amendment.”

The lawsuit, filed in March in U.S. District Court in Detroit, claimed that the State of Michigan unconstitutionally punished the AAFF for screening films that the state deemed “objectionable” by withdrawing undistributed Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) program grants. The legislature had concluded that the AAFF had violated the MCACA speech restrictions and would not be eligible for funding.

These vague speech restrictions included a ban on funding art that contained “depictions of flag desecration” and “displays of sex acts.” Some legislators specifically accused the AAFF of showing films that contained “displays of sex acts” and labeled these films as “pornographic,” a charge vehemently denied by the AAFF.

Two films charged as pornographic were "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 that features two shirtless men bumping chests in the fashion of athletes celebrating.

The new guidelines for arts funding, adopted by the legislature, mirror the National Endowment for the Arts guidelines, which have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.  These flexible guidelines state that “Artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which applications will be judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the people of this state.”

"This decision isn't only a victory for artistic freedom of expression, but a reminder to stand up and ensure that our government is held accountable for the power they wield,” said Christen McArdle, AAFF Executive Director. “We are pleased that arbitrary guidelines will no longer be used to deny artists their creative rights."

After funding was restricted, the AAFF Board of Directors voted unanimously to forego state funding for as long as the restrictions were in place in order to safeguard the festival’s international reputation as an uncensored channel for artists and filmmakers showcasing independent and experimental films. Prior to the restrictions, the festival had received funding from the state for the past 10 years.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorneys, James Walsh, Alicia Chandler and Susan Kornfield of Bodman LLP along with Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director and Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director.

To read the Agreement to Dismiss, visit: http://aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/aaffdismissal.pdf   

To read the complaint, visit: http://aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/aaffcomplaint.pdf     

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