The arts community won a major victory on Wednesday when the Senate agreed to drop a year-old ban on federal funding of works that might be deemed obscene. By 73-24, the Senate adopted less-stringent language that would require artists to return any funds they have received from the National Endowment for the Arts for works that are found by a court to violate obscenity standards or child pornography laws.
Artists forced to return money after an obscenity conviction would be barred from receiving additional grants for three years.
The compromise, offered by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, is similar to language already approved by the House, so it appears likely to become law. It replaced a prohibition that Congress adopted a year ago and that Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., had written into this year's appropriations bill for the Interior Department and sundry other agencies, including the NEA.
Hatch said the compromise had been approved 15-1 by the Labor and Human Resources Committee, which is responsible for overseeing the NEA. Congress, he said, shouldn't try "to micro-manage matters that are inherently subjective."
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., tried to make Byrd's language even more restrictive as debate opened on the $170-million appropriation for NEA for this year. But his amendment was rejected 70-29.
Helms accepted defeat of a second amendment to ban NEA grants to artists making at least $95,000 a year. However, in part of a political accommodation, a third Helms amendment prohibiting NEA support of work that "denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion" was accepted.