Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Freedom of expression is a fundamental concern for all artists who seek to create and exhibit their works. Throughout history, the church, government, other institutions, and those with personal power over artists, have attempted to suppress artistic expression. In many instances of censorship, the works in question did not conform to perceived standards of taste and decency. In other cases, art was suppressed or destroyed in an effort to squelch political criticism. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression to all Americans. However, the right to artistic freedom is not absolute. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled for example, that obscene expression is not, entitled to any constitutional protection. Despite Supreme Court precedents which established the constitutional standards for determining obscene art, this area of law remains unsettled. Many contemporary artists continue to test the boundaries between the obscene and nonobscene. The central research question to this thesis focused on the extent of First .Amendment protection given to artistic expression. Through an examination of federal case law, the courts appear to recognize artistic expression as a protected form of speech with certain qualifications. The courts have given the most protection to artistic expression of a political nature. If the work depicts a political theme or at least deals with some public issue, the courts give artists more latitude. This is true even when the art involves a "captive audience." The courts appear more reluctant to offer the same constitutional protection to artistic expression that is chiefly self-expressive, decorative or of a purely social nature. Inconsistencies also exist in the area of public art. In these cases, the artist's right to create and exhibit works in a public place must be reconciled with government's attempt to regulate public spaces. The courts have found the First Amendment rights of artists minimal when the artistic expression belongs to the government.


A Thesis Presented to the Department of Communication and the Faculty of the Graduate College University of Nebraska at Omaha In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Arts University of Nebraska at Omaha. Copyright 1991 Isabella B. Threlkeld.