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New York Press - August 28, 2002

What's Obscene in Podunk

By John Strausbaugh
New York Press, August 28, 2002
 
Barbara Nitke is a well-known and much-seen photographer in her field. She's president of the New York Camera Club and teaches a course in darkroom technique at SVA. A nice, neat, sweet individual, she's the very very last person in New York City you'd suspect of being a pornographer. Which she's not, not exactly. She's more an arty photo-documentarian of porn -she shot an enormous number of stills on the sets of porn shoots in the 80s and 90s-and of the activities of people of "alternative sexuality" (read: s/m).
 
You can see a sampling of her work at barbaranitke.com. Some portion of the erotic photography you encounter elsewhere on the Internet is also her work. And that, plus the fact that she's the very antithesis of the sleazy, trashy, drug-damaged porn professional, makes her the perfect person to front a legal challenge to current obscenity law.
 
Which she's doing in a case with the simple yet grandiose name Nitke v. Ashcroft.

Nitke knows about obscenity prosecutions from close personal observation. Her ex-husband Herb produced porn in the 70s, including, she says, an uncredited role in financing The Devil in Miss Jones. During the movie's several obscenity trials, "He was always the guy on trial," she recalls. "So my free-speech thing goes way back."
 
It was when she was putting together her website, a gallery of selected photos culled from 20 years on porn sets and in s/m dungeons, that Nitke began to worry about her possible legal exposure.
 
"I was really proud of getting my website up, but also really concerned," she says. "There were some very scary laws that got on the books when Clinton was in power, but they never got enforced. With Ashcroft coming in, these laws were about to be enforced, I thought. A person like me, if I get hit with an obscenity suit, it's an immediate go into bankruptcy, plead guilty. There's no way I'd have the resources to fight it... I started calling around to lawyers and anybody who'd have any legal advice for me."
 
One lawyer she spoke with was John Wirenius, a partner at Leeds, Morelli and Brown, on Long Island (they used to have an office in the WTC as well), a firm that specializes in civil rights and civil liberties. Wirenius focuses on First Amendment cases, has lectured and written on it (First Amendment, First Principles).
 
Wirenius had been approached by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF; www.ncsfreedom.org), an organization "committed to protecting freedom of expression among consenting adults" founded in '97. Member groups include gay, leather and s/m organizations like New York's Lesbian Sex Mafia and Eulenspiegel Society. They had the same worries as Nitke about John Ashcroft and the Bush administration.
 
 
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Why You Should Care

Because your sexual expression...
  • Can result in discrimination, prosecution, and even violence against you
  • Can cause you to lose your children
  • Can cause you to lose your job or your income
  • Can lead you into a maze of antiquated laws and regulations you never even knew existed
  • Is arbitrarily criminalized by state and local authorities
  • Is used by the radical right to marginalize minority groups
  • Can result in the invasion of your privacy by the government, both within your own home or in educational, social and group environments 

How You Can Help

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    • Oppose censorship of consensual sexual expression
    • Fight for freedom of academic expression about sexual issues
    • Help communities and individuals facing the threat of prosecution or legal action
    • Support the right of adults to express their sexuality, gender identity and orientation freely and openly without fear
    • Learn more about NCSF