All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1990

Freedom of Speech/Freedom of Ownership

Mr. anderson is executive director of the Chattanooga Manufacturers Association.

Our city was recently in a mild uproar over the banning of the controversial Broadway musical Oh! Calcutta! The production’s promoter wanted to bring the musical to Chattanooga; the publicly appointed review board for the Tivoli Theater said Oh! Calcutta! would violate the city’s obscenity laws, and thus nixed its appearance.

What followed was the predictable spate of news stories, editorials, and letters to the editors of our two local papers. One editor declared that the city’s review board was violating our rights to free speech; the other said Oh/Calcutta!, which does have some graphic nude scenes, was obscene and should be banned. Some readers agreed with the city officials, while others blamed Christian fundamentalists and other “prudes” who were serving as self-appointed “names” to Chattanooga theater-goers.

However, no one dealt with the primary problem: government ownership of the theater in question. The Tivoli is owned and operated by the Chattanooga city government, which means it is subsidized by tax dollars. Therefore, many taxpayers feel they have a right to decide what the theater management should be permitted to schedule. One paper tried to get around this by declaring that the city should permit Oh! Calcutta! to play, and allow patrons to decide for themselves whether they wanted to attend. While that may seem a Solomon-like compromise, the editor forgets that there are many people in Chattanooga who would have to subsidize that production through their taxes—something they wouldn’t do if given a free choice. Thus, government encroaches upon their freedom in just as coercive a manner as it does when it engages in censorship.

This controversy is reminiscent of a similar episode last year. The movie The Last Temptation of Christ, which many persons believed was blasphemous, came to a local, privately owned theater. Yes, there were peaceful protests, and, yes, some people paid to attend. While many persons on both sides of the issue weren’t completely satisfied, those who wanted to see the film paid to see it, and those wishing not to see it weren’t forced to subsidize the showing.

Whether it is Oh! Calcutta! or graphic “art” by controversial photographers, public funding of arts and cinema—or anything else, for that matter—places our society in situations in which one group experiences total victory while others face total defeat. Unlike in the private sector, government decision-making is always yes or no; there is no middle ground. Simply put, bemuse the private market deals in proportional as opposed to abso lute outcomes, markets are better able to handle such matters.

Public tastes run the spectrum when it comes to “good” or “bad” art, which is why people should be allowed as wide a range of choice as possible. Public funding eliminates much of that choice while it invariably politicizes—and corrupts—art itself.

The best solution to the question of whether Oh! Calcutta! is obscene would be to return the Tivoli to private ownership. While that might not satisfy everyone in Chattanooga, it would give people the choice of either supporting or ignoring the production. This would be “artistic free expression” at its best.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.