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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The culture war is alive and well in Michigan. Legislators there cut funding for a film festival because they said it was showing pornographic material. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today saying the state has no right to make that kind of judgment call. Detroit Public Radio's Celeste Headley reports.

CELESTE HEADLEY: To get state money in Michigan, an arts organization is not allowed to exhibit any of the following: one, a desecration of the flag, two, human waste on religious symbols, or three, the depiction of sexual acts. Christen McArdle of the Ann Arbor Film Festival says she's not sure what that last one means.

Ms. CHRISTEN MCARDLE (Ann Arbor Film Festival): I had said to someone if there's a long kiss, and it's a very, very sexy kiss, does that count? Does that mean I can't show it? And they said yeah. And I said well, what am I supposed to do with that, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HEADLEY: The Ann Arbor Film Festival is the oldest festival in North America that showcases independent and experimental film. It recently lost state funding because legislators say it violated the prohibition on the depiction of sex acts. Now the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit in order to force the state to remove those restrictions. Michael Steinberg is the legal director for the ACLU of Michigan.

Mr. MICHAEL STENBERG (Legal Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan): We believe that just because some members of government think that some art is offensive cannot be used as a basis to withdraw funding.

HEADLEY: The guidelines have been in place since 1996, but they weren't really enforced until last year. Amid passionate talk in the State House about protecting citizens from pornography and obscenity, legislators decided to bar the Ann Arbor Film Festival from receiving state money for at least three years.

Ms. MCARDLE: The government's not censoring what we can show. They're saying show what you want, but you can't show these things so long as you have our money.

HEADLEY: Christen McArdle says she believes the guidelines are unconstitutional, and legal precedent appears to be on her side. In 1991, a federal court in Florida told the city of Miami it couldn't withdraw funding from an art museum because it displayed by an artist who supports Fidel Castro.

In 1999, judges in New York denied Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's request to cut funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of its infamous "Sensations" exhibit. That was the one with the elephant dung on the Virgin Mary. And just a few years ago, a federal court in Texas ruled that San Antonio couldn't withdraw funding from an organization simply because it co-sponsored a gay-themed movie festival.

The ACLU's Michael Steinberg says the judge in that case gave a powerful statement about the dangers of restricting artistic expression.

Mr. STEINBERG: The specter of government as Big Brother doling out subsidies based on the viewpoint of recipients should be odious to all Americans, for the point of view officially favored today may be the one censored tomorrow.

HEADLEY: The drive to enforce the funding restrictions was sparked by an essay from Michael LaFaive. LaFaive is a policy analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Center, a libertarian think-tank in Michigan. LaFaive argued that the state had no business funding arts at all and claimed that taxpayer dollars could end up paying for a so-called cesspool of silliness. He used the Ann Arbor Film Festival as an example, but says he didn't intend to single out that organization.

Dr. MICHAEL LAFAIVE (Policy Analyst, Mackinac Center for Public Policy): I was unaware that the Ann Arbor Film Festival would find itself in trouble for violating what I was told was not only boilerplate language in the state budget, but a contract that they had signed with the History, Arts and Library Department.

HEADLEY: LaFaive says he's sorry if the film festival is struggling to recover the funding it lost, but he says public funding for the arts is not protected by the Constitution and actually hurts artists.

Dr. LAFAIVE: Art is so subjective, and so we should not have a tiny group of elites in Lansing defining what is worthy art and what is not by handing out subsidies to one group and not another.

HEADLEY: One of the films mentioned in LaFaive's essay was "Boobie Girl," from director Brooke Keesling. Keesling says she thinks LaFaive didn't see any of the films he objected to, since her movie is suitable for all ages.

Ms. BROOKE KEESLING (Director, "Boobie Girl"): There's nothing pornographic about my film. It's really G-rated. It's really sweet. In fact, the woman who narrated it used to be the voice of Rocky the Squirrel from "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and it's like kind of like a fractured fairy tale, the way that it's told.

HEADLEY: Michael Steinberg of the ACLU says there's more at stake here than one film or one film festival.

Mr. STEINBERG: Artistic expression is a cornerstone of a free society, and we have to as a society remember that art funding is as important as giving subsidies to corporations.

HEADLEY: The ACLU of Michigan filed suit in federal court today to overturn the restrictions. The State of Michigan is expected to present a vigorous defense. For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headley in Detroit.

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