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Mapplethorpe Obscenity Trial: 1990

Obscenity Or Art?, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendants: Dennis Barrie and the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center
Crime Charged: Displaying obscene material, namely pictures by the artist Robert Mapplethorpe
Chief Defense Lawyers: Marc D. Mezibov and H. Louis
Sirkin Chief Prosecutors: Richard A. Castellini, Frank H. Prouty, Jr., and Melanie J. Reising
Judge: F. David J. Albanese
Place: Cincinnati, Ohio
Dates of Trial: September 24-October 5, 1990
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The acquittal of the Mapplethorpe defendants was a major reaffirmation of First Amendment freedom of speech protection in the new realm of homosexual art.

In the Spring of 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, Ohio, held an exhibit of photographs by the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The exhibit was controversial from the start because of the openly homosexual nature of much of Mapplethorpe's work and was well covered in the Cincinnati press. There was a great deal of negative public reaction, and rumors spread that the city of Cincinnati would attempt to close down the exhibit under Ohio's obscenity statute, which makes it illegal for any person to "Promote,… display … or exhibit … any obscene material."

The CAC's director, Dennis Barrie, attempted a preemptive strike aimed at heading off an obscenity prosecution. The CAC filed an action for a declaratory judgment, which is a type of civil lawsuit, on March 27, 1990, in Hamilton County (which includes Cincinnati) Municipal Court. CAC asked the court to declare the exhibit not obscene, but on April 6, 1990, the court refused and dismissed the action. The next day, the Hamilton County Grand Jury indicted CAC and Barrie for criminal violations of the Ohio obscenity statute.

Of the approximately 175 pictures in the exhibit, seven were particularly controversial and were the focus of the ensuing trial. Two pictures were of naked minors, one male and one female, with a "lewd exhibition or graphic focus on the genitals." The other five were of adult men in unusual sadomasochistic poses.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994