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Ten years ago: Accusations of porn at the Ann Arbor Film Festival led to fight for free speech

Mar 24, 2017

This year marks the ten-year anniversary of a legal case that challenged free speech.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival was accused of showing pornography at its event. The Michigan Legislature withdrew funds to be awarded by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA). In response, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, with aid from the ACLU and the National Coalition Against Censorship, sued in federal court.

Christen Lien led that fight against the state of Michigan. She was relatively new to her role as executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival at the time.

It started with an article from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy criticizing public funding of the arts. It used some examples of provocative films being shown at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Some legislators in Lansing read the article and after inspecting the festival's entries, 24 films were declared pornographic by the lawmakers.

However, when films like America's Biggest Dick, a satire about Vice President Dick Cheney, were flagged, it seemed like the politicians hadn't done a lot of research. 

"It was very clear to us when the films were named that they were not watched," Lien said. "The legislators went by titles and synopses, and from that point, had an agenda and called them pornographic."

Funding was revoked based on three guidelines listed on the application for those looking for grants from the MCACA: Films were not allowed to show human feces on religious symbols, could not show a desecration of the American flag, and there could be no sex of any kind.

This was a violation of free speech, Lien said.

With the ACLU, Lien filed a lawsuit.

Listen to the full interview above to hear more about the case and the objectionable films. You'll also learn how the case was ultimately settled.

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