The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the City of Pasco, WA violated the rights of two artists when it censored their works. The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of artists Janette Hopper and Sharon Rupp challenging the exclusion of their works from a program to display art at the Pasco City Hall in 1996.
"The City broke its agreement to exhibit these artists’ works. It’s not the business of government to censor art because some people may find the art controversial,” said cooperating attorney Paul Lawrence, who is representing the artists for the ACLU along with attorney Daniel Poliak.
The City of Pasco had agreed with artists Janette Hopper and Sharon Rupp to display their art work publicly at the Pasco City Hall Building. The works were to be exhibited as part of a partnership between the City of Pasco and the Mid-Columbia Arts Council to display art works at Pasco City Hall on an ongoing basis. 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 works were 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 also was made because display of her work would make the exhibition a “political” one.
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 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the City violated the artists' rights to freedom of expression. In its ruling the Court stated, "We do not endorse Pasco's cramped view of what constitutes censorship, and we find none of the city's reasons for excluding the art work compelling."
“The City of Pasco had decided to open City Hall as a public forum for art. 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’s controversial or offends someone’s political sensibilities,” said ACLU attorney Paul Lawrence.