Heins takes a look at NEA, censorship in ‘Blasphemy’

Ana Steele, the acting senior deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, is scheduled to testify today in front of a Congressional subcommittee as reauthorization hearings for the federal agency get under way.

Steele’s testimony, skedded to take place before the Labor Management Relations committee, no doubt brings back images of 1990 when the NEA was seeking reauthorization and instead became a soccer ball in a nasty game of politics and censorship.

“In some ways, that battle planted the seeds for a new McCarthyism,” said Marjorie Heins, an attorney with the Arts Censorship Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and author of “Sex, Sin and Blasphemy.”

“It was that fight that led to gays and lesbians being demonized, which in itself led to a kind of blacklisting,” she said.

Heins has written the tome to discuss censorship in America since 1989.

“Attacks on artists and entertainers have often succeeded because they push ‘hot buttons’ — subjects that arouse emotions so powerful that they may interfere with rational thought,” Heins writes in her book.

Heins said she wrote the book to answer the question raised by friends of her parents and, conceivably, by millions of other Americans.

“During a visit, this friend of my parents said ‘Well, I’m for the First Amendment, but,’ ” Heins said. “It made me think that a lot of people don’t really understand what censorship is about.”

So this book is for those people who “might be turned off by Ice-T but who are still open to discussing the protections drafted in the First Amendment,” she said.

She started writing the book in 1992, as Anne Imelda Radice was taking the reins as interim chair, following the firing of John Frohnmayer by the Bush Administration.

“The NEA controversy is no longer on the front burner, but it certainly set the stage for a mentality to scapegoat speech,” she said.

Heins said right-wing activists have lately begun to demand labeling on live theater presentations.

“Once you start setting up the rules for censorship, it blossoms,” she said. “The debate then becomes what is acceptable and what isn’t.”

The ground has been paved by actions such as the one taken by the Recording Industry Association of America when it yielded to political and consumer pressure to label music albums. Similar kinds of pressure is now being applied on TV networks.

“The movie industry, like other branches of our vast entertainment empire, is driven by the twin desires for profit and public approval,” she wrote. “When pressured, it will often yield.”