Free speech does not mean what he thinks it does

So in 2015, artist Julian Raven painted Unafraid and Unashamed, a worshipful, 16 foot wide painting of Donald Trump (and as an aside, people who admire a racist, sexist, sexual harassing liar and crook because he’s not ashamed are saying a lot about themselves, and it ain’t good). In 2017, he asked the National Portrait Gallery to display it for the inauguration. The director said it wasn’t very good (I agree; you can see it at the link); Raven sued on the grounds that by refusing him, the museum was denying him his First Amendment rights. He lost, but he’s appealing the case

As the judge who ruled against him said, museums selecting which works hang on their walls is not a First Amendment issue. Selecting artworks, or historical pieces, or dinosaur skeletons is part of their job. And yes, that includes rejecting works that are too political. Nobody has the right to demand their work be exhibited, even in a government museum. As Fred Clark points out, the museum is not suppressing Raven’s work: he displayed it at CPAC and he’s free to show it anywhere he chooses. What Raven wants to do is force the museum to put his poster up, in defiance of the organization’s own First Amendment rights (which include the right not to express a viewpoint or show a painting).

This is something a lot of people, and not just conservatives, have trouble grasping. Not providing someone else with a platform to speak is not, generally, a violation of their First Amendment rights and it’s not necessarily censorship. If Stephen Miller or Milo Yianopoulis (or for that matter Barack Obama) wants to speak at UNC, or Harvard, or on the lawn of my house, wanting to doesn’t translate into a right to speak there. They don’t have a right to have a book published; they don’t have a right to have stores carry the book if it is published; movie theaters are not obligated to show a movie hero-worshipping Donald Trump. Even if they’re doing it for political reasons, that doesn’t make it censorship.

I first ran into this argument in the early 1990s when Piers Anthony and another author were complaining that bookstores refused to carry their stuff because of its political content (I don’t know the specific objections, though with Anthony I can imagine) ā€” censorship! Both said that would be acceptable if the books didn’t sell, but not for objections to their content. Which is to say they had more respect for someone who rejected their work based on cash than someone who rejected it on principles.

I disagreed strongly (not to their faces, though). If a company wants to make decisions based on ethical conduct, that’s certainly justifiable; nobody’s obligated to sell erotica, or porn, or Bibles, or Korans, or atheist manifestos, or sexist TV stars if they disagree with them. That’s true even if their decisions aren’t ones I’d agree with. Refusing a book because the lead character is gay, or there’s an inter-racial romance is a bad thing in my eyes ā€” but that’s not because it’s a First Amendment issue, it’s because I disagree with the politics.

Which is true of most conservative posturing on this matter: the issue is their right to promote their own viewpoints, not free speech, but they don’t admit it. When Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty was denied a speaker’s slot at a Christian event because his family had launched a wine label, the religious right didn’t protest; when A&E dropped his show for his sexist remarks, they were livid.

As Clark says, it’s not inconceivable Raven might win his case, given how hard the Republicans have worked over the years to staff courts with conservative judges. But if he does, it would not be a triumph for freedom. And certainly not for good art.

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