A local California government official decided that an artwork hanging in a public building was so "obscene" that he had it removed by his staff. But the First Amendment prevents this kind of interference — and the artwork is back up.
"Buy Sexual" by artist and skateboarding icon Steve Olson was installed in the foyer of the Betteravia Government Center building in Santa Maria. But Santa Barbara County supervisor Peter Adam decided the piece was inappropriate, and directed his chief of staff Bob Nelson to remove it. As Nelson told a local newspaper, "Our office finds this obscene and inconsistent with community standards."
But other government officials thankfully saw things differently. After a meeting of the County Art in Public Places (CAPP) committee, Olson's artwork was back on the wall– albeit in a different location in the same building.
On September 16, NCAC's Arts Advocacy Program sent a letter to the members of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission commending them on their decision to rehang the piece. The letter pointed out that the claim that Olson's artwork was obscene "does not fit any legal definition of obscenity, and thus the removal of 'Buy Sexual' is very likely a violation of the First Amendment."
The recommendation also called for a photo of the controversial artwork be placed near the original location along with a didactic panel be added near “Buy Sexual” to explain the significance and the intention of the piece as social commentary.
The controversy has motivated the Arts Commission to rewrite its guidelines:
The commission also decided to create an ad hoc committee to update guidelines for art exhibits, with staff noting the procedures were last revised approximately 20 years ago.
The committee will use the National Coalition Against Censorship information to revise the local policy.
Hopefully the new guidelines will reinforce the point that government officials cannot make their own determinations about which art should be removed from a public building.
Read NCAC's letter below, or click here.
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