Arts

Art vs porn: Iowa prisoners mount legal challenge to nude image ban

Too titillating? Pomarède Vincent's Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters, which hangs in the Louvre, would fall afoul of Iowa's nude ban
Paris, Musée du Louvre © RMN

Can the government keep prisoners from seeing pictures of Botticellis Birth of Venus—merely because it depicts bare breasts—without violating the US Constitution? The images prisoners can look at, or even draw, is at the heart of two lawsuits brought by inmates challenging a 2018 Iowa statute banning material that is “sexually explicit or features nudity”. This could limit prisoners access to art and educational publications. In 2016, for example, a copy of The Art Newspaper addressed to an imprisoned subscriber was returned with a letter from the warden of a federal penitentiary in Missouri, because it “contains sexually explicit information… or features nudity”.

Under Iowas law, inmates no longer have access to mainstream publications such as National Geographic, says the lawyer Nathan Mundy, who represents Michael Lindgren, a tattoo artist challenging the statute in federal court. Mundy adds that his client is now not even allowed to draw his own nude figures, which will hurt Lindgrens practice when he is released. “Nudity is a big feature in tattoo art,” Mundy says.

That could change. On 3 April, Judge Scott Rosenberg of Iowas District Court put a hold on enforcing the ban until the case he is overseeing is fully litigated.

Iowas law defines “nudity” as “a pictorial depiction where genitalia or female breasts are exposed”, while “sexually explicit” means “a pictorial depiction of actual or simulated sexual acts”, a definition that arguably encompasses Greek vase painting. The states definitions of prohibited material therefore may not be constitutional because it “could ban… access to legitimate art, literature and other publications”, including a medical journal depicting human anatomy, Rosenberg wrote.

Describing the judges order as “a strong rebuke of Iowas overly broad restriction”, Rachel Meeropol, a senior staff attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, says: “If the suit is successful, I would expect to see more challenges” to similar laws.

The Iowa Attorney Generals office and the Department of Corrections declined to comment.

The 12 inmates in Rosenbergs case, who do not have a lawyer, argued in their petition for a temporary restraining order that the law prohibits “substantial amounts of constitutionally protected speech”, depriving them of obtaining “happiness and meaning (especially in the depraved environment of the penitentiary) through the arts”. At oral arguments, they stated they were adamantly against pornography and did not seek access to it.

However, the defendants—IowaRead More – Source

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