City Issues Apology for Women’s History Month Censorship

Photographer Brooke Mason may have been at the center of a free speech controversy in West Hollywood, California, after three of her photographs were removed from a Women’s History Month-themed exhibition last month, but inclusion in a new exhibit and a formal apology from the city show that members of the WeHo community won’t let anyone trample on their right to free expression.

As part of a city-wide Women’s History Month program, West Hollywood based photographer, Brooke Mason planned to show three of her photographs in two different exhibits. When the exhibits were being set up, though, concerns over the content of the photographs led to their removal. Citing violations of the city’s policies on displaying nudity, the controversial photographs were called too “explicit,” with one even being wrongfully labeled as child pornography.

One photograph, entitled “Glass Ceiling” depicts a nude woman sitting on a glass tabletop with a nude man as its base. The second, “Voyeur,” shows a young woman with exposed breasts interpretably being watched from inside a building behind shear curtains. And the third, “Soar” portrays a young topless woman — one city officials initially believed to be underage — in a ballet-like mid-air jump.

After a city employee complained that at least one of the pieces was too “explicit,” notification from city art’s administrator Andrew Campbell was sent to Mason stating that Mason’s nudes were too nude and violated a city policy that only allowed the depiction of nude women from the waist up. As such, the pieces would need to be removed. In response to Campbell’s comments, Mason countered, “I don’t know where you are going with this. Are you trying to say it’s too sexual?”

Despite confirmation that the model in “Soar” was indeed over the age of 18, the city wouldn’t back down, though, and threatened to outright cancel at least one of the exhibits if the photographs weren’t removed. “While the Commission actively supports the presentation of provocative and challenging work, it also understands that these works must be presented with care and consideration,” said Maribel Louie, manager of the city’s Arts and Economic Development Division. “The nerve,” Mason commented. “Just because a woman has small breasts, she’s a child? And she believes that I make child pornography?”

In response to the removal, local citizens and free speech advocates like the National Coalition Against Censorship spoke out about the knee-jerk reaction and double-standard that the city was propagating. What became a very heated free speech battle in the West Hollywood community culminated in the city issuing a formal apology to Mason calling the removal of the photographs an “error.” Council Member John Duran noted that censorship “is something that the City of West Hollywood will not tolerate,” adding:

[West Hollywood] a city that is not afraid of the open expression of sexuality, and that includes HIV Positive women and men who are also sexual in nature. We have no embarrassment or shame about that sort of expression, either. My apology to the artist. We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again and, and it sounds like it was an error, so, my apologies.

Along with impassioned words of support for Mason, Mayor Lindsay Horvath also made the comment: “I don’t think it was ever the intention of the city to disrespect any artist or her work. But we do have room for improvement in being consistent in those guidelines.”

Mason may not have had her art on display at the two exhibits, but she did end up getting the last word. Her work graced the walls of the West Hollywood Library in another exhibit entitle “At the Core,” an exhibit put on by grass-roots initiative Women Manifest and curated by Mason herself. In addition to the apology, the city has also agreed to sponsor a solo exhibition of Mason’s photographs. The exhibit will take place April 21 – June 27, 2016, at the Art Room at the Plummer Park Community Center.

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2015 by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!