Florida College Asked Local Sheriff To Declare Faculty Member's Artwork Obscene

from the christ-what-a-bunch-of-officious-assholes dept

Cops may not know art, but they know what they don’t like. Blowing past the First Amendment to give their official opinion on art critical of law enforcement is never an acceptable “solution,” but it’s one that happens nonetheless.

Last year, a high school decided it would rather demonstrate its subservience to local law enforcement than stand behind its students and their First Amendment rights. Photos of a painting of a cop in Ku Klux Klan hood pointing a gun at a black child appeared in the school newspaper. Instead of running the article, a teacher ran down to the cop shop to offer a profuse apology on behalf of “99.9% of the teachers at the school.” Returning to school with the aftertaste of boot polish still lingering in his mouth, he engaged a full-on tongue kiss with the town’s mayor, who offered his own profuse (and cowardly) apology to the offended police department.

Now, as Sarah McLaughlin of FIRE reports, another institute of learning has decided the best approach to controversial artwork is to display its soft underbelly to law enforcement as quickly as possible. A faculty member’s artwork was deemed “controversial.” This is an unsurprising development. Controversy and artwork have enjoyed a long and healthy relationship for many, many years.

What is surprising is the university’s reaction to the controversial artwork. Faculty member Serhat Tanyolacar’s submission was met with a whole lot of resistance from Polk State (Florida) itself due to its subject matter.

Tanyolacar’s piece, “Death of Innocence,” depicts several poets and writers juxtaposed with a number of altered images of President Donald Trump and other political figures engaging in sexual activity. According to Tanyolacar, the work is meant to highlight “moral corruption and moral dichotomy” and provoke debate.

Polk State Program Coordinator Nancy Lozell informed Tanyolacar on Feb. 6 that it would not be displayed at a then-upcoming faculty art exhibition because the college “offers classes and volunteer opportunities to our collegiate charter high schools and other high schools in Polk county and we feel that that particular piece would be too controversial to display at this time.”

The university refused to offer any justification for this move when asked to explain its ignorance of the First Amendment by FIRE. It also refused to provide an answer as to when the artwork would be exactly controversial enough to be put on display.

But it gets a whole lot weirder and scarier and stupider. Documents obtained via public records requests show school officials decided to get local law enforcement involved in its First Amendment altercation. For reasons only known to the school (but reasons that certainly appear to be vindictive), the school asked the Polk County Sheriff (rather infamous around these parts) and the county district attorney to hand down an ad hoc obscenity ruling. This is part of the letter sent to the school’s president by the school’s attorney, discussing the “solid ground” the university would be on if it chose to keep censoring Tanyolcar’s art.

Earlier this week, we understand that you and several other College administrators met with the Polk County Sheriff and an Assistant State Attorney for the Tenth Judicial Circuit to discuss the Work. We understand that both the Sheriff and the Assistant State Attorney have stated that they view the Work to be obscene material and that they intend to enforce Florida’s obscenity statute in the event that the Work is displayed to the general public without restriction.

Without question, the Work is an overt depiction of sex acts being committed by national politicians, including the President of the United States. Art is often in the of the beholder, but, as Justice Potter is known for saying, “I know [obscene material] when I see it.” Jacobellis v. State of Ohio, 378 US. 184, 197 (1964)(Potter, J., concurring). You are certainly entitled to rely upon the wisdom and advice of the County Sheriff and the State Attorney’s Office in determining if the local Polk County community would view the Work as obscene material. Given that law enforcement has opined that the Work is obscene, we feel constrained to advise you of the same.

Not only did the school approach law enforcement to get clearance to bury this artwork, it also received assurances the Polk County Sheriff’s Department would arrest someone (probably the artist) if the work was displayed publicly.

It’s difficult to express just how fucked up this is. Rather than support a faculty member’s protected expression, the university went out of its way to find some way to punish him for creating it. It wasn’t enough for Polk State to simply reject his submission and deal with the inevitable — and accurate — accusations of censorship. No, it had to go to one of the lousiest sheriff’s departments in the country and ask for assurances someone would be rung up on obscenity charges should the blow-back force release of Tanyolacar’s creation.

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Comments on “Florida College Asked Local Sheriff To Declare Faculty Member's Artwork Obscene”

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Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:


… if it’s like most "exhibitions", all works are vetted. No first amendment applies to such – if the board accepting contributions turns one down, they don’t usually see any need to explain why.

That they went to the police and DA makes me think there was a private "shoving match" that isn’t in the articles about it, and they were simply looking for legal support if it came to that.

And, please, turn these things around before condemning or exalting them – if was obama rather than trump depicted, would you feel the same?

TFG says:

Re: Hmm...

In reading the FIRE article, it appears the college did, in fact, have a concern that the First Amendment may have required them to grant the art a spot:

On Feb. 23, 2018, Florida attorney Drew Crawford emailed Falconetti “a draft letter… regarding the ‘Death of Innocence’ matter” and explained that he “feel[s] that we have a good legal ground to stand on if we should ever be required to make our case.” The subject line read: “Proposed Legal Opinion and Response to Censorship Allegations.”

You have requested our legal opinion regarding Polk State College’s determination to reject the artwork entitled “Death of Innocence” (the “Work”) from inclusion and display as part of the College’s “Faculty Art Show” exhibit (the “Art Exhibit”). In brief sum, after consideration of the facts surrounding the College’s determination, a brief review of the Work, review of pertinent cases and decisions, and discussions with local law enforcement officials, it is our opinion that Polk State College is not required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution to include the Work in its Art Exhibit. Further, applying local community standards, the Work appears to be obscene and, as such, likely does not enjoy any First Amendment protection.

IANAL, so I honestly don’t know if this particular piece of artwork should, in fact, enjoy First Amendment protections, but that they even asked indicates that there is the potential for cases where the First Amendment would deny them the ability to refuse to display something.

As to your second question of the turn-around test:

I, for once, would definitely have the same issues with this course of action if it were Obama instead of Trump. The main point of concern I see in this is that the college went running to law enforcement over this. Even should the college not be restricted by the First Amendment, Law Enforcement is. They shouldn’t be consulted on matters of expression where public safety is not actually a concern.

TFG says:

Re: Re: Re: Hmm...

Actually? Yes. Same response, if we are not changing anything else about the situation. Law enforcement should not be involved. I don’t really have an issue with the University itself deciding not to display something because they find it obscene – unless it’s a case where the First Amendment would actually demand they not block it.

When they go and get law enforcement involved in the display of art, that’s a major issue. The government is not supposed to suppress expression. If some knucklehead wants to make a political statement with the artwork you expressed, given that the art piece in question does not appear to be an incitement to violence, then law enforcement needs to stay out of it.

After all, the actual KKK is still allowed to actually meet and rally, so long as they don’t start committing violent acts. They are expressing themselves, and if done in a way where public safety is not threatened, they’re welcome to do so.

In terms of my personal reaction to the artwork itself? That would likely be different given the differences in the art pieces. The one that this member of faculty created is rather less outlandish in my opinion than the one that you described. A more comparable piece would be simply putting Obama in the place of Trump in the current depictions, rather than bringing in racial stereotypes and dumping the portion of the message that relates to poets, authors, journalists, etc.

I don’t necessarily agree with the exact message of this faculty member, but law enforcement should not have been consulted.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Hmm...

In this particular case, I can see them going to a prosecutor to determine their standing – he pulled roughly the same stunt in 2015.

Also, this happened over a year ago in 2017. I suspect there’s been quite a bit of accusation, whining, and the like in the meanwhile.

No idea why they’d go through a Sheriff’s office though. Not relying on their own legal staff, yes – they’re apparently looking for an outside opinion.

As to the guy being a hack trying to get a hook into a college so he can sue them, I’d love to see this particular work turn around and bite him in the ass – it’s a collage of other people’s work, seeing him hit with a few hundred copyright violation claims would be entertaining.

TFG says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Hmm...

If there’s any action to be taken by anyone, this should all remain squarely in the realm of Civil court. The Sheriff’s office has no place in this, as public safety is not threatened.

If they wanted outside opinion, they could have gone to someone other than law enforcement. An actual lawyer, you know, instead of the PD (especially since PD’s have this thing where they don’t need to actually know the law to be given the job of enforcing it, for some strange reason). Going to law enforcement over this smacks of all sorts of potential 1A violations.

patents (profile) says:


Don’t know where you got your law degree, but in my (4th ranked) law school they would gleefully meet you in court on that remark.
Yes, you or anyone else can vet a work – but if the reason is in violation of the First, look out!

As to not giving a reason, that would add to the damages in a lawsuit.

Would my answer be different if it were Obama? Of course not! I think Obama was among our better Presidents, but the Constitution rules!

Anonymous Coward says:

Polk State is basically a community collage with a slight upgrade to offer a 4 year degree. The President of the Collage The Sheriff and the ADA probably get together regularly to beat up young male prostitutes that fail to satisfy them correctly.

By the way, the Tampa newspaper has no issues with the artwork.

Everyone’s afraid of big bad judd – someone needs to check his closets.

Dan (profile) says:

Polk State Program Coordinator Nancy Lozell informed Tanyolacar on Feb. 6 that it would not be displayed at a then-upcoming faculty art exhibition

The university refused to offer any justification for this move when asked to explain its ignorance of the First Amendment by FIRE.

The school declined to show the piece at a faculty art exhibition. How do you believe this demonstrates "its ignorance of the First Amendment"? Granting that the school is a state actor for purposes of the 1A, are you suggesting that the 1A prevents the school from limiting what pieces will be shown at such an exhibition? From making content-based distinctions among pieces? Because if so, I’d be very interested in seeing your authority for these propositions.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of directly-relevant appellate case law, but there is some. In Close v. Lederle, 424 F.2d 988 (1st Cir. 1970), an art instructor at a state university, after being invited to exhibit his paintings in a busy corridor, was made to remove them because they were sexually explicit; the First Circuit found no violation of the First Amendment. See also Piarowski v. Illinois Community College Dist. 515, 759 F.2d 625 (7th Cir. 1985), in which a faculty member was required to remove his sexually-explicit artwork from a public gallery–again, this was held to not violate the First Amendment.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The "case law" resides in the background of this "artist".

Claims he’s "in exile!" from his native Turkey.

It’s self imposed. He was sentenced to a year in prison with a five year stay/probationary period or to serve a term in the Turkish Armed Forces in 2001 or 2002. For similar stunts.

Fleeing to the US, he continued on claiming to be a Professor in Exile. Well, almost. He’s a part-time adjunct associate professor. Which is pretty much a fancy way of saying he’s an official TA.

He tried this same stunt in 2015, with a seven foot tall papier-mache "sculpture" of a Klansman made from old newsprint articles about racism.

If you look at his artwork, it ascends to the lofty heights of a Brownie troop gluing macaroni to paper to make pictures. It’s either sloppy papier-mache that needs explanation to explain what it "is", or, like the one the article is about, a collage of other people’s work cut out and glued to a posterboard.

He "explained" the First Amendment before he put his Klansman "sculpture" on display.

The only rational conclusion about this guy is he’s deliberately trying to get "banned" so he can collect on lawsuits while being contentious enough that he can keep a day job.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m not sure what any of that has to do with the question of whether the college violated his First Amendment rights by declining to show his work in their exhibition. After all, troublemakers are still protected by the 1A just like the rest of us, and the 1A’s protection of free speech certainly isn’t limited to the cream of the crop. I just don’t think it guarantees his right to have his work (regardless of who he is, or what it is) exhibited in this venue, and I think the courts agree here–though I remain interested in seeing contrary authority.

I’m also pretty skeptical of the conclusion that his work is obscene. Yes, it depicts sex acts. Does it, taken as a whole, "lack[] serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value"? Well, maybe, though I doubt any Circuit would agree here–after all, it’s pretty obviously intended as (certainly childish) political commentary. But is it, as a whole, designed to appeal to the prurient interest? Not even close. In order to establish obscenity, all three of these must be true–if any of them is not, the work isn’t obscene.

So, IMO: The work itself, whatever its merits or lack thereof, is not obscene, and I don’t see anything else that would put it outside of the scope of the 1A’s protection. Thus, the 1A protects the "artist’s" right to make and show the work. It does not, however, guarantee him a venue, nor does it require the school to include it in their exhibition.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The First argument is something he always mis-defines in his claims before showing his self-described "Political Art" (it’s the only "art" he "performs"), then tries to get people to complain about it.

He’s fishing for lawsuit settlements. Hasn’t been working out for him, as I mentioned he’s done this before.

And as I mentioned, his "art" is crudely cobbling together items he thinks will cause dissension.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

All of this is irrelevant. His view of the 1A is irrelevant. The quality of his works is irrelevant. His motivation for creating them is pretty much irrelevant. The 1A itself, and the relevant case law (as defined by courts, not by him), are what’s relevant.

Under that case law, I don’t see any way that the work is properly deemed obscene. The sheriff may not have known better, but the DA should have. I don’t see any other reason that the work wouldn’t be protected (i.e., it isn’t defamatory, it isn’t a threat, it certainly isn’t fighting words, etc.). Without a clear-cut exception, the work is protected, as is his right to create and display it.

However, from what I’ve found (and I’ll acknowledge that the case law I’ve found is both scanty and old), the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee him space at the school’s exhibition. Tim seems to think the contrary position is so obvious as to not require any explanation at all. I’m still waiting for a citation to relevant authority.

Feldie47 (profile) says:

A few things seem to me to be appropos:

1) As an educator, I feel I can no longer write student recommendations for admission to this college(?) should I be asked to do so.

2) Is there a method by which I can help fund exhibition of this work?

3) Is there a reproduction of this work for sale? I’m sure I can’t afford the original, but I’d love to have a copy.

Valkor says:

Re: Re:

In response to 3), the easiest way to get a copy is follow the link in the comments to the Tampa Bay Times, open the link to the full image posted there, and print it. Just in case you haven’t already done that, here’s a heads up. It’s mostly a monochrome porn collage. Seriously. If it weren’t for the political figure’s faces pasted on, 2/3 of it would just be a big spank bank.

Anonymous Coward says:

Fuck Obscenity Laws

Seriously the very concept is a product of small minds who look at the First Ammendment think "that can’t be right" and neuter it to make it more like "how things should be". All while dutifully ignoring the real obscenities that are "normal"

It is far past time for the laws to be placed on the ash heap of history. Fuck their feelings and fuck the community standards – they have none if you rightfully exclude double standards.

Ekaterina says:

Re: Re: So... crack a book open bro

First of all, I’m not a "bro" and secondly, unis are private institutions just like Twitter or Facebook, so if Twitter/FB can censor far-right, unis should be able to censor violent far-left. In fact, lack of such moderation lead to the shithole we have today, it gave us Anita Sarkeesian, it gave us that god damn moron Shives, a guy completely without any sort of appeal, not even on intellectual level. So I recommend you to read something, written by Liana Kerzner instead of your awful leftist anti-freedom, anti-equality propaganda.

(if it wasn’t clear already, I’m a chick!)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: So... crack a book open bro

Everyone’s a bro here, bro. It’s rather unfortunate you missed the whole point in discussion. IE that educational institutions are governed by specific laws and Twitter as an internet communications medium are governed by completely different ones (notably section 230 of the DMCA) and conflating the two is disingenuous at best. The rest of your little rant is off topic and of little to no merit, save to say the “leftest propaganda” I’m peddling is The Constitution. And for after dinner discussion: The State Action Doctrine and if it can be argued that it applies here seeing as the College itself took a potentially First Admendment Violating action by involving the Police.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: So... crack a book open bro

unis are private institutions just like Twitter or Facebook

Um, no, they aren’t. At least not when they’re public universities, as the school in question is. They’re state actors, and as such, the First Amendment can be implicated by their actions. I don’t see that their choosing not to show this piece of alleged art does violate the First Amendment (Tim apparently thinks this point is obvious enough to not require any support–I’m a lawyer who has researched the issue a bit, and I disagree). But the school is nowhere close to the same position as Facebook/Twitter/etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 So... crack a book open bro

See bro, Dan has read a book and gone to a couple civics classes. Be like Dan.

Also I’m not sure it’s very clear in this case that the Uni are state actors. The devil is in the details as they say. I’d like to see a ruling in this particular case as it’s rather interesting.

art_phd (profile) says:

What the fuck do you know about art?

a troll is trolling his right-wing idiocy over art he/she does not know anything about it. Do you know any people at Polk State College, troll?

This artist had many "opportunities" to sue institutions as well as governments before. Before you start your nonsense speculations research fist.

Your right-wing (or libertarian) rhetoric only displays your iq level; if you have any… People like you only attack without reasoning to grow their inflated egos. Go to a museum, read a book about political art. Here is one group you should know about: Situationists… Hell even dada would be a good start for you.

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