San Bernardino County officials removed two paintings by Efron Montiel Jiminez and one by Armando Aleman from the annual National Hispanic Heritage Month exhibition at the County Government Center. The paintings feature nude figures from various angles, and their removal has raised First Amendment issues concerning the display of nudity in public buildings.
The county reportedly invited artists to submit works without stipulation, accepted the three, and then installed them in public space inside Government Center. After receiving complaints from “several visitors and county employees,” county officials removed the paintings and asked the artists to pick them up. A third artist reportedly censored his own paintings, with a sign apparently reading “Censored for a ‘Government’ Building.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship and the ACLU of Southern California have taken issue with the removal of the paintings, reportedly sending a letter to the County Board of Supervisors. The letter alleges that the First Amendment applies to Government Center, as a “public space opened to exhibiting artwork,” and that “government officials cannot arbitrarily impose their prejudices on a curated exhibition.” The letter cites the Ninth Circuit case of Hopper v. City of Pasco for the proposition that, “by opening its display space to expressive activity,” it has “evinced ‘an intent to create a designated public forum.’” In a “designated public form” with First Amendment protections, a court should apply strict scrutiny, requiring a “compelling state interest” and a means “narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”
San Bernardino spokesman David Wert has attempted to distinguish the situation at Government Center, reportedly saying, “The county doesn’t believe it’s censorship because the county isn’t an art gallery. People don’t go to the Government Center to see art.” He goes on to cite personnel rules that “guarantee employees a work environment where they’re not subjected to offensive images” and the usual appeals to the sensitivities of children. He describes the removal of the paintings as an act of “discretion” rather than censorship, but acknowledges, “In retrospect, I wish we had taken a look at the artwork in advance.”