Fairfield Ledger
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Neighbors Growing Together | Dec 25, 2014

Convention center addresses censorship issues, political film

By DONNA SCHILL CLEVELAND, Ledger staff writer | Oct 18, 2012

A controversial political film has put The Fairfield Arts & Convention Center at the center of a debate regarding political speech and censorship.

Executive director Rustin Lippincott said the film has raised the first public backlash since the center opened in 2007.

After immediate heated feedback from the community, the board of directors for the center called a meeting Tuesday to clarify its policy with regard to use of the facility. The board concluded showing the film to be consistent with the center’s policy.

Several weeks ago, Lippincott booked the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts for an Oct. 12 screening of “Dreams from My Real Father,” a film asserting Obama’s father to be Frank Marshall Davis, an alleged Communist.

Lippincott said he approached the transaction as he has other private promoters seeking use of the center’s facility.

“Historically we have rented to organizations and people wanting to screen a movie, hold a meeting or present on stage,” he said. “We are in the business of renting space as one of our revenue streams.”

Lippincott said renters have shown controversial content in the past, but he’s never received the amount of public feedback this screening has prompted.

“This is something that has never come to us before,” he said. “This is unchartered waters.”

After learning the political nature of the film could potentially threaten the center’s nonprofit status, Chairman of the board Rob Steinberg canceled the screening pending legal review and board consideration.

The Internal Revenue Service states:

“ … all 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office … Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status.”

After reviewing the IRS regulations, the board voted to allow the screening under certain conditions.

Steinberg, said he believed it important to “allow broad use of the theatre,” while still protecting the center’s nonprofit status.

“We have to be careful to maintain neutrality,” he said.

To that end, he said the center will continue to consider those seeking to rent the facility on an equal basis, and will charge a standard rental fee.

The policy asserts the center’s right to prohibit the use of the facility for “overly offensive” programming, but says it will opt to use disclaimers or disclosures instead wherever possible. Steinberg said he believed censorship to be appropriate in cases where material contains pornography or hate speech.

“We want to be clear there are some things that are out of bounds,” he said.

The date for the screening of “Dreams from My Real Father” has not yet been finalized, according to Joseph Perna, one of the film’s local promoters. The convention center has clarified it will not sell tickets or promote or publicize the film in any manner. The promoter will be required to provide a disclaimer stating the viewpoints expressed in the film are those of the filmmaker and do not represent the viewpoints of the center. Viewers must also be informed they may find some of the subject matter offensive.

“We don’t want to limit political speech,” said Steinberg, “but limit the manner in which it is presented, because we don’t want to engage in political advocacy.”

Lippincott and Steinberg said they wish to avoid viewing all content before shown at the center, but will bring potentially extreme content to the board’s executive committee to be examined.

“We believe in fair and open discourse,” said Lippincott. “Everyone has the opportunity to use the convention center to show something or to do something as long as it’s appropriate as compared to the policy.”

 

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