Appeals Court Rules Says WA City Officials Violated Artists Rights in Censoring Exhibit

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
February 15, 2001 12:00 am

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PASCO, WA–A federal appeals court decided in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union today, when it ruled that the city officials here violated the rights of two artists when it censored their works. The artists Janette Hopper and Sharon Rupp were challenging the exclusion of their works from a 1996 art exhibit at the City Hall.

“The City broke its agreement to exhibit these artists’ works,” said cooperating attorney Paul Lawrence, who is representing the artists for the ACLU along with attorney Daniel Poliak. “It’s not the business of government to censor art because some people may find the art controversial.”

The City of Pasco had agreed with artists Janette Hopper and Sharon Rupp to display their art work publicly at the City Hall Building. The works were to be exhibited as part of a partnership between the City and the Mid-Columbia Arts Council. Hopper had been invited to exhibit a series of black and white linoleum relief prints, and Rupp had been invited to display several sculptures.

Hopper delivered her prints for display on February 7, 1996 but was told the next day by a representative of the Arts Council that City officials had prevented the Arts Council from hanging the pieces in the Pasco City Hall Gallery. Hopper’s prints depicted Adam and Eve touring German landmarks and included some nudity.

During ensuing conversations and correspondence, Hopper was informed by City officials that her art work was not shown because they were considered “sexual” and “sensual,” and because the City feared the works might generate complaints from a local anti-pornography crusader.

Rupp’s sculptures were displayed at the Pasco City Hall Gallery from February 8-15, 1996. On February 15, Pasco City officials ordered the Arts Council to remove them. Among the works was Rupp’s satirical bronze sculpture titled “To the Democrats, Republicans, and Bipartisans,” which showed a woman mooning her audience.

During ensuing conversations and correspondence, Rupp was informed by City officials that the sculptures were removed because of their sexual nature and because the City had received complaints about the art display. Rupp was informed that the decision to remove her work was made because her work would make the exhibition “political.”

The ACLU said the City operated its public art program without a pre-screening process or any guidance as to what kind of work would be considered inappropriate. The City had previously exhibited other works of art with nudity and had no regulations barring works of art such as that submitted by Hopper and Rupp.

“The City of Pasco had decided to open City Hall as a public forum for art,” said ACLU attorney Paul Lawrence. “The courts have said clearly that once government officials make such a decision, they cannot make choices based on the content of the art – whether it is controversial or offends someone’s political sensibilities.”

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