National Coalition Against Censorship
The National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of over 50 national nonprofits, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups, promotes freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression and opposes censorship in all its forms. Since its founding in 1973, NCAC has engaged in advocacy and education in support of First Amendment principles. NCAC works directly with community members to address censorship controversies without resorting to litigation. It engages students, teachers, school administrators, artists, curators, public officials, activists, and more through local and national campaigns, in addition to monitoring and analyzing trends in free speech rights, to create meaningful change and defend freedom of expression.
NCAC formed after the United States Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California (1973) narrowed First Amendment protections for obscene materials, defining obscenity as anything lacking “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Particularly narrowing protections for sexual expression, the decision threatened artists and activists whose work fell outside of contemporary cultural norms and made their work vulnerable to obscenity prosecutions. Central to NCAC’s mission is the protection of artists’ right to engage in cultural dialogue without fear, defending public access to artists’ work and supporting artists’ ability to freely express views that might be unpopular or controversial.
NCAC works on regional and local projects in order to engage directly with those in need of assistance and set examples for other communities under similar circumstances. For instance, NCAC’s Kids’ Right to Read Project supports teachers, students, and parents in defending books in schools and libraries, while creating a wide range of free resources and offering administrators guidance on best practices. NCAC’s other core projects are the Arts Advocacy Program and the Youth Free Expression Program.
Created in 2000, the Arts Advocacy Program is dedicated to working directly with artists and curators facing censorship threats and helping them resolve disputes outside of the legal system. In 2016, NCAC worked with artist Dread Scott after one of his pieces, made as part of a Black Lives Matter project, was nearly censored. The Kansas City art venue 50/50 invited Scott to create a billboard confronting issues of racism in America. When the artist proposed listing the names of people killed in recent acts of police violence as part of the design, the mega-corporation that owned the billboard rejected his design on the grounds that it violated a “non-confrontational” policy. NCAC and other local organizations pressured the corporation to reverse their decision, and after Scott made small changes to the design, his proposal was accepted and the project titled, “A Partial Listing Of People Lynched By Police Recently,” was displayed.
One of the most prevalent forms of censorship in America is the removal of “controversial” content from schools. Fighting censorship in schools and advocating for children’s right to engage with diverse literature and art is a key piece of NCAC’s work. Much literature that is banned explores topics like LGBTQ+ identity, racism, sexism, mental health, sex education, and the like, but is deemed “age inappropriate” by school administrators, teachers, librarians, and parents. The NCAC takes on cases like this and tailors resolution strategies to each situation. They also conduct advocacy work more broadly, educating communities on their First Amendment rights and ways to fight censorship extralegally. Recently, NCAC partnered with the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and West Virginia Library Association in an effort to restore a children’s fairytale, Prince and Night by Daniel Haack, to a public library in West Virginia. The book, which tells the story of a prince searching for love and finding it in a gallant knight, was removed from the children’s section of the library after complaints from a local pastor. This case is indicative of a rash of recent incidents targeting LGBTQ+ literature in schools and libraries that NCAC is working to resolve.
The Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) deeply values NCAC’s commitment to free expression through their fight to call out censorship when and where it occurs. NCAC is a core member of ARC’s network, and its Director of Programs, Svetlana Mintcheva, previously sat on ARC’s Advisory Committee. ARC has also collaborated with NCAC on multiple events. In February 2019, the two organizations organized a panel addressing the difficulties raised by displaying the work of morally compromised artists, especially in light of the #MeToo movement. In May 2019, the two organizations supported a show by Nicaraguan performance artist Elyla Sinvergüenza at the 2019 PEN World Voices Festival, where the artist transformed a violent Nicaraguan ritual into an immersive healing experience.
In November 2019, NCAC celebrated its 45th anniversary with an event in New York honoring human rights defenders and artists whose work reflects their mission. If you have experienced or witnessed an act of censorship, you can report it through their easily accessible online reporting system.
By Anna Shultz, January 2020. Anna is pursuing a B.A. at Sarah Lawrence College, concentrating on politics and history. She hopes to use her academic studies and her passion for art to advance sociopolitical progress and defend human rights.