“Metropolitan Opera Says It Will Cut Ties with Pro-Putin Artists”

This Sunday, the New York Times (Javier Hernandez), reported:

The Metropolitan Opera said on Sunday that it would no longer engage with performers or other institutions that have voiced support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, becoming the latest cultural organization to seek to distance itself from some Russian artists amid Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Peter Gelb was the Met’s general manger. The Met had a long-standing partnership with Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater and Russian top singers, so it felt obligated to support the Ukrainian people.

“Whilst we strongly believe in the warm friendship, cultural exchange that has existed for a long time between the artists of Russia and American artistic institutions,” Mr. Gelb stated in a video that “we cannot no longer engage artists or institutions which support Putin or who are supported by him.”

While I do not support Putin, I also don’t believe in ideological blacklists. This includes artists that support the Chinese government or Putin’s supporters, as well as those who support Trump, Biden, and Ocasio Cortez. These blacklists can lead to more blacklists. However, how about Chinese artists who support Xi Jinping, out of ideologic conviction, misplaced patriotism and fear of reprisal?

Star performers are known for their goodwill and reputations. While I am sure there are some, it is possible for others to support causes and people in order to build goodwill. A producer may decide that hiring a star who is not popular would be a poor idea from a financial standpoint. However, I believe that cultural organizations should resist the temptation to employ a star who is not popular. They should instead try to keep their viewers’ attention on the artwork and less on politics.

Blacklisting artists would in certain states be unlawful, at most if they are employees, and not contractors, under the state’s law. The Statutory Protection against Employer Retaliation for Speech and Political Activity by Private EmployeesIn fact, that is what I believe would happen in my state of California. New York’s ban on political discrimination is limited to election-related speech (“running for public office, … campaigning for a candidate for public office, or … participating in fund-raising activities for the benefit of a candidate, political party or political advocacy group”), and it sounds like that isn’t the support of Putin that would count. The statute does not limit itself to American public offices. So, it is possible that a Frenchman would have campaigned against candidate Macron or a Russian candidate for Putin. But, Putin really doesn’t need this much electoral-related support.

New York law does also ban discrimination based on “recreational activities,” which  means “any lawful, leisure-time activity, for which the employee receives no compensation and which is generally engaged in for recreational purposes, including but not limited to sports, games, hobbies, exercise, reading and the viewing of television, movies and similar material.” This could include political speech. However, New York case law is unclear. Compare Cavanaugh to Doherty (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (treating an allegation by plaintiff that she was fired because of a discussion at work in which her political opinions became a topic),  El-Amine v. Avon Prods., Inc. (N.Y. App. Div. 2002), (apparently likewise to plaintiff’s “involvement” in a vigil in Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, who was brutally killed in Laramie. Wyoming, Jennifer Gonnerman. Avon Firing, Village Voice, Mar. 2, 1999), With Kolb v. Camilleri (W.D.N.Y. 2008. (“The picketing was not done for pleasure by the plaintiff, but in protest. While the Court has found such protest worthy of constitutional protection, it should not engender simultaneous protection as a recreational activity ….”).

But in any event, even if the Met’s actions—and similar actions by other institutions—are legal, I think they are a bad idea: they lead to more political divisiveness and hostility, less free and open discussion, and pressure to implement broader suppression in the future.

After drafting the post, I also noticed this article by Prof. Tyler Cowen (Bloomberg Opinion) that makes very similar points; I highly recommend it.