May 17, 2021

Adler on The Shifting Law of Sexual Speech: Rethinking Robert Mapplethorpe @nyulaw

Amy Adler, New York University of Law, is publishing The Shifting Law of Sexual Speech: Rethinking Robert Mapplethorpe in volume 2020 of the University of Chicago Legal Forum. Here is the abstract.
This Article explores the dramatic changes that have occurred over the last thirty years in the First Amendment doctrines governing sexual speech. As a prism through which to evaluate these changes, I consider the thirtieth anniversary of the landmark Robert Mapplethorpe trial, the first censorship prosecution against an art museum in the history of this country and the defining battle in the culture wars that roiled post-Reagan America. The target was the exhibition of formally beautiful, sexually hard-core photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe on view at a museum in Cincinnati. The controversy that erupted over those images—fueled by anxieties about AIDS, homosexuality, sadomasochism, race, government funding for the arts, and the vanishing boundary between art and pornography—spilled out of the courtroom into popular culture and into the halls of the United States Congress. I analyze the shifting trajectories over the years of the two legal doctrines that were at the center of the Mapplethorpe case—obscenity law and child pornography law—and I show the starkly divergent paths these two areas of law have taken. While obscenity law has receded in importance, and while the allegedly obscene photos from the trial have become prized in museums and in the art market, child pornography law has followed the opposite course. In contrast to the allegedly obscene pictures, which pose almost no legal risk today, the two photographs of children that were on trial have become more, not less, controversial over the past thirty years, to the point where curators are quietly reluctant to show these images at all. In my view, these photos now occupy a space of legal and moral uncertainty. What explains these differing legal and artistic trajectories? What happened to change the dynamics of showing these works? In tracing the divergent paths taken by these two doctrinal areas, I explore not only the stark changes in the law of sexual speech, but ultimately the mutually productive relationship between censorship law and culture. Free speech law governed this chapter in the culture wars, yet in surprising ways, the changing social norms unleashed by the culture wars have also governed free speech law.
Download the article from SSRN at the link.

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