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tudying Culture & Expression

he legitimacy or acceptability of expression that is considered harmful, dangerous or offensive and “crosses the line” is the subject of continuing debate and the scope for disagreement on what can be considered necessary and proportionate constraints on that right is very wide. In the case of arts venues and institutions, judgments about where to draw the line are ultimately the responsibility of the artistic director. Nicholas Serota explained that trust and confidence lie at the heart of these decisions and are necessarily made on a case-by-case basis “with conviction, responsibly weighing consequences”. Trust has to be developed with many different agencies, funders, sponsors, artists, audiences and it is important that an institution or arts organisation can demonstrate how it made its decision to present contested work, in good faith and for the public interest.

This section summarises the day’s discussion about how artistic expression is controlled and silenced and by whom. The absence of direct state-sponsored, highly visible censorship, which prevails in many countries around the world, may contribute to the commonly held view that there is no censorship in this country and that it is not a problem. However speakers throughout the day from across the sector confirmed that censorship is a major issue for the arts, and that it comes in many different forms, both direct and indirect, some more subtle, some more overt making it hard to “find one’s bearings”. The lawyer Anthony Julius, Deputy Chairman, Mishcon de Reya, differentiated between the age-old paradigm of censorship of the arts as the confrontation between the artist and the authoritarian state, and contemporary UK censorship, which sits within a liberal democracy. Contemporary censorship he said “is a heterogeneous assemblage of agencies, individuals, confessional groups, spontaneous groups that come into existence in response to provocation”.

Human rights charters acknowledge the relatively narrow range of acceptable interventions on legal grounds – such as security and violence – but also open up a much broader set of public order and public morality issues which various actors and influencers can then use as justification when attempting to silence speech for social or moral reasons.

Institutional self-censorship, a term that was used for the first time in a public discussion at this conference, was seen as a key factor and accordingly a discussion of its causes and characteristics has a separate section devoted to it.