National Endowment for Arts v. Finley,
524 U.S. 569 (1998)

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No.97-371. Argued March 31, 1998-Decided June 25,1998

The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 vests the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) with substantial discretion to award financial grants to support the arts; it identifies only the broadest funding priorities, including "artistic and cultural significance, giving emphasis to ... creativity and cultural diversity," "professional excellence," and the encouragement of "public ... education ... and appreciation of the arts." See 20 U. S. C. §§ 954(c)(1)-(10). Applications for NEA funding are initially reviewed by advisory panels of experts in the relevant artistic field. The panels report to the National Council on the Arts (Council), which, in turn, advises the NEA Chairperson. In 1989, controversial photographs that appeared in two NEA-funded exhibits prompted public outcry over the agency's grant-making procedures. Congress reacted to the controversy by inserting an amendment into the NEA's 1990 reauthorization bill. The amendment became § 954(d)(1), which directs the Chairperson to ensure that "artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which [grant] applications are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." The NEA has not promulgated an official interpretation of the provision, but the Council adopted a resolution to implement § 954(d)(1) by ensuring that advisory panel members represent geographic, ethnic, and esthetic diversity. The four individual respondents are performance artists who applied for NEA grants before § 954(d)(1) was enacted. An advisory panel recommended approval of each of their projects, but the Council subsequently recommended disapproval, and funding was denied. They filed suit for restoration of the recommended grants or reconsideration of their applications, asserting First Amendment and statutory claims. When Congress enacted § 954(d)(1), respondents, now joined by the N ational Association of Artists' Organizations, amended their complaint to challenge the provision as void for vagueness and impermissibly viewpoint based. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of respondents on their facial constitutional challenge to § 954(d)(1).


The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that § 954(d)(1), on its face, impermissibly discriminates on the basis of viewpoint and is void for vagueness under the First and Fifth Amendments.

Held: Section 954(d)(1) is facially valid, as it neither inherently interferes with First Amendment rights nor violates constitutional vagueness principles. pp. 580-590.

(a) Respondents confront a heavy burden in advancing their facial constitutional challenge, and they have not demonstrated a substantial risk that application of § 954(d)(1) will lead to the suppression of free expression, see Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U. S. 601, 615. The premise of respondents' claim is that § 954(d)(1) constrains the agency's ability to fund certain categories of artistic expression. The provision, however, simply adds "considerations" to the grant-making process; it does not preclude awards to projects that might be deemed "indecent" or "disrespectful," nor place conditions on grants, or even specify that those factors must be given any particular weight in reviewing an application. Regardless of whether the NEA's view that the formulation of diverse advisory panels is sufficient to comply with Congress' command is in fact a reasonable reading, § 954(d)(1)'s plain text clearly does not impose a categorical requirement. Furthermore, the political context surrounding the "decency and respect" clause's adoption is inconsistent with respondents' assertion. The legislation was a bipartisan proposal introduced as a counterweight to amendments that would have eliminated the NEA's funding or substantially constrained its grant-making authority. Section 954(d)(1) merely admonishes the NEA to take "decency and respect" into consideration, and the Court does not perceive a realistic danger that it will be utilized to preclude or punish the expression of particular views. The Court typically strikes down legislation as facially unconstitutional when the dangers are both more evident and more substantial. See, e. g., R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U. S. 377. Given the varied interpretations of the "decency and respect" criteria urged by the parties, and the provision's vague exhortation to "take them into consideration," it seems unlikely that § 954(d)(1) will significantly compromise First Amendment values.

The NEA's enabling statute contemplates a number of indisputably constitutional applications for both the "decency" and the "respect" prongs of § 954(d)(1). It is well established that "decency" is a permissible factor where "educational suitability" motivates its consideration. See, e. g., Board of Ed., Island Trees Union Free School Dist. No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U. S. 853, 871. And the statute already provides that the agency must take "cultural diversity" into account. References to permissible applications would not alone be sufficient to sustain the statute,

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

A statute is permissible if it does not preclude speech but merely accounts for decency and respect in reforming procedures.


The National Endowment for the Arts sponsored two controversial works of art, giving rise to formal complaints that the agency had abused its allocated funds and the public's trust. Congress designed the Williams/Coleman Amendment to the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act as a response. It provided that the NEA should consider general standards of decency and respect for diverse beliefs and values while considering the artistic merit of grant applications. The Amendment was challenged on First Amendment grounds.



  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Stephen G. Breyer
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Amendment places no conditions on grants, and it does not forbid grants to projects that might be indecent or disrespectful. These new criteria thus do not receive controlling weight or even any specific weight in the review process. They are so vague and gently worded that they are unlikely to substantially impinge on the discretion of the agency.


  • David H. Souter (Author)

This is a viewpoint-based regulation aimed at speech, and it has an impact on government funding. As a result, it should not be free from First Amendment principles.


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • Clarence Thomas

Case Commentary

An administrative figure assigned to delegate government funds is allowed to have some discretion in that process. This law struck a reasonable balance between providing guidance but providing room for personal judgment and case-specific evaluations.

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