The Marin Civic Center has requested that Goodman’s painting be reinstated to the show!

“The County of Marin must balance its employees’ rights to be free from a hostile work environment with the artists’ freedom of expression under the First Amendment,” Brewer said. “Upon further review, and in balancing these rights, the County of Marin has offered to restore Ms. Goodman’s painting to the exhibition.”

Marin Arts Council Executive Director Argo Thompson said he was happy “a solution was found that serves everyone.”

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NCAC and the First Amendment Project are making headlines as we fight back against art censorship at the Marin County Civic Center, where a painting of a nude female form was struck from a show because an employee called it “sexual harassment”.

Free speech watchdogs rip Marin Civic Center art censors

By Nels Johnson
Marin Independent Journal

National free speech organizations jumped into a censorship controversy swirling at the Marin County Civic Center this week, saying that removal of a nude painting from a public art exhibit trampled on the First Amendment.

The New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship joined with the First Amendment Project in Oakland to condemn censorship of the impressionistic painting by San Rafael artist Sylvia Cossich

Goodman, saying the county has violated her free speech rights and exposed itself to “legal liability.”

The painting was removed from a Marin Arts Council display that included several other nude paintings after a county employee complained the work offended her. The art was moved from the first

floor, where the employee worked, to the third floor, then banned after the employee continued to complain.

“We urge the Civic Center to immediately put the work back on display and, in the future, draft exhibition policies that are consistent with First Amendment principles,” the two groups said in a letter to Chief Assistant County Administrator Mona Miyasato, in charge while her boss, County Administrator Matthew Hymel, took the week off.

Earlier this week, Miyasato said the painting was ejected because it created a hostile work environment for the employee. Miyasato declined comment on the coalition’s assertions, referring the matter to county lawyers, who also side-stepped discussion of the issues.

“The county of Marin recognizes that it must balance First Amendment rights with its workplace free from sexual harassment and discrimination,” said Deputy County Counsel Renee Giacomini Brewer in

a one-sentence response.

County supervisors, asked to weigh in on the growing freedom of expression controversy, did not return emails seeking comment.

David Greene, executive director and staff counsel at the First Amendment Project, said that “by no means does the simple inclusion of an image of a nude figure in a contemporary arts exhibition constitute

a ‘hostile work environment.’ A single painting is not and cannot be construed to be the type of repeated and systematic behavior that defines sexual harassment.”

What’s more, Greene said, “Employees who dislike specific pieces in an art show must be made aware that the Civic Center is governed by the free speech clause in the First Amendment once it has been opened to exhibit work. That means the selection of art in the gallery should be based on viewpoint-neutral criteria.” In this case, he added, removal of the work has led “to the impermissible imposition of an individual’s viewpoint on the whole community and is likely to be found in violation of First Amendment principles.”

Greene indicated Goodman has a good case if she elects to sue the county. “The law is pretty clear,” he said. “You just can’t pull something off the wall.” He added his group, which provides free legal aid in cases it accepts, has not talked to Goodman.

The courts have concluded public officials cannot censor art they find offensive or provocative, agreed Svetlana Mintcheva, program director at the the National Coalition Against Censorship, a union of 52 nonprofit free speech and educational groups. She cited a number of cases in which courts including the Supreme Court declared nudity alone does not allow officials to remove art from public exhibitions, even when children are present, in light of the First Amendment.

Peter Scheer, head of the First Amendment Coalition of San Rafael, said county officials are skating a “slippery slope.” While local government has some discretion “to decide what to include” in a new show, once a painting is hung, then removed because of an employee’s qualms, “it gives the power of censorship to the person in government who is most easily offended.” Artist Goodman said she has been swamped with emails and telephone calls from strangers “all in support of my painting,” a photo of which appeared in the Marin Independent Journal. “Some people are questioning if it is technically a nude since the bottom part is quasi-abstract,'” she said.

Goodman observed that the county employee who found the art offensive sparked a furor that has provided her with a “gift” of publicity, recognition and acclaim. She noted an Independent Journal blog includes a firestorm of outrage from residents alarmed by the Civic Center censors.

“I feel that to describe the environment of the Civic Center as a hostile working environment because of my painting is truly a slap in the face to working people who suffer real hostilities such as verbal, physical, and sexual abuse,” she said. “The Art Council offered to display the painting upstairs on the third floor and even this solution was not acceptable. How could this person’s sensibility be described as reasonable or normal?”

Argo Thompson, head of the Marin Arts Council, noted that while his group does not want to upset the county hosts of its prime exhibition venue at the Civic Center, the flap has prompted an illuminating community conversation about artists, art and freedom of expression.

Thompson, saying he thinks “art is sexy, and if you want to see artists making it, come to Marin Open Studios,” hopes the controversy attracts visitors to the annual studio arts gala.

“Marin Arts Council puts no restrictions on the content of the artwork exhibited at our gallery at 906 Fourth St., San Rafael,” he said, giving his organization a plug. “One work from nearly 300 artists, including one by Sylvia Cossich Goodman, will be on display from April 29 to May 21 as part of the Marin Arts Open Studios Preview Gallery. Additionally their collections can be viewed at their studios May 7,8,14 and 15.”

Contact Nels Johnson via e-mail at [email protected]