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New York Daily News - July 15, 2002

Fotog vs. Feds in Obscenity Law: Files suit to keep photos on Web

by Veronica Vera

New York Daily News, July 15, 2002

Photographer Barbara Nitke is used to being behind the lens, but if legal matters heat up, she may soon find the government focusing on her.

Nitke is ready to step into the foreground as the chief plantiff in Barbara Nitke and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom vs. John Ashcroft and the US Government in a challenge to the Communications Decency Act, which governs obscenity on the Internet.

The lawsuit was filed on Dec. 11 in Manhattan Federal Court of New York; the government moved to dismiss, and the plaintiffs have moved for an injunction.

The case continues to make its way through the courts.

Nitke, whose photo show "20 Years" opened on Friday at the Art at Large Studio in Manhattan, began her career in 1982 as a still photographer on movie sets.

But since 1994, her emphasis has been on chronicling the intimate lives of couples. She has gained a considerable reputation as a fine-art photographer and is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts.

Photojournalist Mark Peterson, who attended the packed opening, commented, "There is a beauty and ethereal quality to her work that forces people to look at it in a different way than they might have when they walked into the room." He compared her work with that of Robert Mapplethorpe, who stirred controversy with his erotic photos.

Nitke's involvement in the civil liberties lawsuit began when she decided to create a website on which to show and sell her work. Aware that her photographs are highly provocative, she consulted several lawyers regarding obscenity laws, only to discover that under the Communications Decency Act, obscenity is a gray area determined by community standards.

A 1997 Supreme Court ruling struck down half of the act, the "indecency" section, when it determined that if a work is indecent but still can be found to have redeeming social value, it can be displayed in public. But the "obscenity" portion of the act still stands. Among the lawyers Nitke consulted was John Wirenius, legal counsel for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.

The members of the coalition, "a national organization committed to protecting freedom of expression among consenting adults," were also concerned about obscenity statutes and decided to pursue a proactive stance and challenge the law. They asked Nitke to be the plaintiff because, as Wirenius said, "We wanted to make clear that under the current law, a serious artist whose work is sexually explicit and controversial could be prosecuted."

The tactic proposed by the coalition to sue the government to either define or eliminate the obscenity law appealed to Nitke, who said she believed, "Why wait to respond to trouble if you can nip trouble in the bud?"

Barbara Nitke's "20 years" can be seen through August 3 at Art at Large, located in the Film Center, 630 Ninth Ave. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 1pm to 6pm and Saturday and Sunday by appointment.

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