Fun_People Archive
18 Apr
Tim Miller at the Supreme Court

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Sat, 18 Apr 98 00:42:21 -0700
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Subject: Tim Miller at the Supreme Court

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I am back from my day in court, the SUPREME COURT that is. It was a crazy
journey to go to DC for two days to be at the oral argument for the last
driblets of the NEA 4 case but I am glad that I made the effort and
schlepped to see the spectacle of the Supremes finally taking on the Culture
War. I took a late flight to DC, spent the night at my brother's house in
McLean, VA around the corner from Ken Starr's house, and was woken up the
next morning at 6:30 AM by my two fabulous nephews bouncing up and down on
my bed saying "Uncle Tim! Uncle Tim!" (Interesting to have my adventure in
court as a queer artist begin in the lap of the heterosexual family unit!
So noisy! So early! So cute Devin and Jason are!) This was the equivalent
of 3:30 AM LA time, so I was not at my prettiest as the boys pummeled me
with pillows. I managed to coffee up and make the morning commute with my
brother Greg to Arlington where I hopped on the Metro. For once in my life
I am early for something! I meet my great friend photographer Dona McAdams
at Union Station and we stroll down to the court. The camera piranhas are
already gathered waiting for fresh meat. Skirting the long line (I know we
are on a list with the US Marshall) I walk up the long steep marble stairs
of the Supreme Court and all at once it feels like a sword and sandals epic
from the 50's! Dona and I go through many layers of security as we run into
Karen Finley and Holly Hughes & Esther Newton also waiting in line. Other
familiar faces from the last years of this controversy: ACLU lawyers,
journalists. Willem Dafoe and other Wooster Group folk. For a moment it
feels strangely like a high school reunion to me. Finally we get in and take
our seats. I am sitting next to a woman from the NEA who seems to think we
should be buddies even though we are on opposite sides in this case and I
happen to believe it is shameful that not a single one of these NEA
bureaucrats ever resigned in protest. Dona is on my right and Karen next to
her, Holly and Esther further down. The room is high and pillared with big
faggy swags of bordello-red fabric between. (Justice Souter's decorating
tips, I imagine!) The tall ceiling is covered with the usual marble bas
reliefs of humpy workers and wise men passing judgement. Directly above
where the Supreme Court Justices sit is a marble carving of two men with
excellent abdominals sitting in thrones side by side. One is bearded (Steve
Reeves as Hercules) the other smooth shaven, boyish but built. These
carvings will be the perfect backdrop for the day in that not too distant
(I hope) future when this Court will finally pass judgment on Lesbian and
Gay marriage. I would like to be there on that day!

Oye! Oye! Oye! The judges come in. The Big Daddies (even though two are
women). Every disciplinary visit to the Principal's office in elementary
school comes back to me as the Justices take their seats. Once in 4th Grade
Principal Lambas made me fill a dixie cup up with my own spit in his office
after I had spit on another boy in my class. This was Principal Lambas' idea
of a just punishment. It takes a very long time to fill a big dixie cup with
your own saliva. This was what I remembered at the Supreme Court took their

The oral (was this why I remembered that afternoon in Principal Lambas'
office?) arguments begin. They earlier had distributed a pamphlet which
instructs us "How to Behave at an Oral Argument." The Justices, who rock a
lot in their comfy recliner chairs, seem to me to be quite surly with the
Solicitor General (Seth Waxman) presenting the Government's case. I start
to think the Court is leaning our way. The Solicitor General tries to pitch
that the "standards of decency" language is not really censoring speech.
"We don't think there is a any constitutional problem here." Justice Kennedy
seemed to reject this and sensibly responds that all art inevitably carries
with it "viewpoint" and is by nature vulnerable to such curtailment by vague
notions of "decency." Clarence Thomas, as usual, says nothing throughout
all the proceedings. Our lawyer David Cole gets up and I think does very
well, though the Justices are on his butt too and will hardly let him finish
a sentence. The Court seems annoyed that they are having to deal with this
matter. David boldly spins the argument that the speech of artists needs to
be protected by the same standard of freedom of speech even when the
government has supported it with a grant. The decency rule "singles out art
which has a nonconforming or disrespectful viewpoint. Government can't
impose an ideological screen " without abridging the 1st Amendment, David
said. The Justices seemed skeptical of this notion or that any "Chilling
Effect" had really happened on account of this language. (You'll have to
read the stuff in the papers for more details.)

Time's up! Suddenly the oral argument is argumentative no more and is done!

It had taken an hour. After eight years of drama and hate mail and blabbing
and death threats and demonstrations it all ended up with the Supreme Court
spending an hour on this subject. I felt quite dazed. We were ushered out
and the next case was already on. Walking back down the marble stairs, which
felt a little more now like I was leaving Principal Lambas' office than the
Forum in Rome, Holly, Karen and I made our way to a garden of microphones
for the press conference. I was dreading having to say something. The part
of me that is Mr. Sound Bite was nowhere to be found. It all felt too
overwhelming and on the spot. We lined up. Lawyer David Cole was articulate
and upbeat. Karen said she felt like she had been in an abusive relationship
with Jesse Helms and that he had been sexually harassing her at her
workplace. Holly made the crucial point that the reason we even were at the
Supreme Court was because of yet another betrayal by Clinton who could have
let stand the lower court decision that "standards of decency" were an
unconstitutional criterion for the funding of the arts. I tried to make the
point that younger artists all over the country have received the signal
loud and clear that work about sexuality, politics or gender gets in a mess
of trouble. I brought up my students at Cal State who struggle through all
this censoring shit to try to claim their expression. I wanted to remember
that it is the emerging artists that are really getting fucked with by this
"chilling" limiting of creative speech. That felt like a sensible message
to speak to the cameras in front of the Court. It was the best I could
manage amid my jet lag in any case.

We walked across the street for a little reception and post-game huddle. I
felt really tired. My usual excitement about Democracy in Action (Civics
class had been one of my favorites!) was pretty depleted at this point.
Fittingly, as the reception wound down, a bunch of us went and had lunch at
the restaurant "America" in Union Station to debrief the day. General
thoughts: I think the court will probably kick the case out and not make
decision. I am pissed off that Clinton challenged the Ninth Circuit
decision. I am convinced that though this business with the Supreme Court
is a big battle, there are a zillion little struggles that are really where
my work needs to be done:

Like continuing to dismantle that censor in my head that got put in there
through a thousand experiences in my life--including that time when
Principal Lambas made me fill up a dixie cup with my own spit. Clearly
Principal Lambas had the imagination of a performance artist!

Like making sure we keep Highways, the most attacked performance space in
all this fuss, open and thriving and training a bunch of new and fierce
artists.  This goes for all the other arts centers in the country that have
been hassled, especially Out North in Anchorage who are currently under the
gun in Alaska.

Like encouraging my students at Cal State (and everywhere else I teach) to
do our wildest and most truthful work including the ensemble piece called
I AM NOT YOU which we showed at Highways the night before I flew to DC. I
saw my gang of students sift through their own issues of identity and come
up with powerful and specific statements of self. Their skin and their
history and their voices alive in the room!

Like continuing to dig deep into my life as a queer citizen and trying to
figure out what the stories are that I need to bring forward as an artist
for myself and for my community.

Your Court Reporter signing off,

Tim Miller

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