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Supreme Court of the United States

Should Artists Be Able to Create Messages Consistently with their Beliefs?

By Ryan Everson posted on:
October 21, 2019

Free speech is embedded in our nation’s DNA. And it’s essential to preserving peace in a diverse country such as ours. The freedom of speech is among the first freedoms in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment explicitly says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”

But this freedom isn’t just limited to protecting words that are literally spoken. It protects much more.

When creative professionals prepare a custom piece of art, they are using their talents to express a message. This is true for many of our clients at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). These are people like Jack Phillips, who expresses messages through the beautiful cakes he designs, sculpts and paints. It’s also true for Carl and Angel Larsen, who use their filmmaking skills to tell great stories that honor God. And it’s true for people like Barronelle Stutzman, who uses her artistic talents to create custom floral arrangements.

Some people claim that a custom cake, film, or a floral arrangement is not Constitutionally protected speech. But if we look at First Amendment precedents, we see that is clearly not true.

Federal appellate courts have long recognized that the First Amendment fully protects music (including purely instrumental music), pictures, photographs, paintings, drawings, engravings, and sculptures. And this tracks exactly what the U.S. Supreme Court said in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc.: “the Constitution looks beyond written or spoken words as mediums of expression,” noting such examples of protected speech as composing music, saluting a flag, wearing an armband to protest a war, parading, and more.

A piece of custom art constitutes speech, and artists have the right to refrain from using their artistic speech to express messages with which they disagree. As the Supreme Court stated in Janus v AFSCME just last year, “We have held time and again that freedom of speech includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.” This means that Christians cannot be forced to speak messages or celebrate events that violate their beliefs, such as their Christian beliefs about marriage.

But people of faith aren’t the only ones who benefit from the freedom of speech. Free speech benefits everybody.

Freedom of speech and conscience is common to us all. That’s why atheists cannot be forced to create religious artwork. It allows Muslims to refrain from expressing messages that support Christianity rather than Islam. And it protects the right of Democratic speechwriters to refuse their services to Republican candidates.

This week, ADF celebrates Free Speech Week because free speech protects all people, including people of faith, from those who seek to censor them. As the Arizona Supreme Court recently said in an ADF case, “Freedom of speech and religion requires tolerance of different beliefs and points of view. In a diverse, pluralistic society such as ours, tolerance of another’s beliefs and point of view is indispensable to the survival and growth of our democracy.” And certainly, growing our democracy is reason to celebrate!

Ryan Everson

Ryan Everson

Communication Integrity Specialist

Ryan serves as the Communication Integrity Specialist at Alliance Defending Freedom.

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