By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Shaw’s, Allen Ginsberg and obscenity

It looks like Shaw’s may have violated its own policy in banishing copies of the Portland Phoenix, which carries an inside-the-paper nude photo of the late Allen Ginsberg and his lover, Peter Orlovsky, to accompany this article. In a statement reported by the Portland Press Herald, Shaw’s spokeswoman Judy Chong says:

“It’s not our policy to censor material produced by an independent publisher if the material falls within the guidelines of the law and is not considered patently obscene or offensive. Shaw’s reviewed the content of this publication and decided to remove the paper based on the nude images.”

If you want to parse this legally, you’ve got to put a lot of weight on the word “offensive.” Because something that is obscene under the Supreme Court’s Miller v. California standard is, by definition, illegal — not that there’s always any sure way of knowing in advance whether it’s obscene. But there is no way that this particular image could be considered obscene. It doesn’t depict sexual acts, and it obviously has artistic merit.

Shaw’s clearly has the right to ban anything it wishes. I’m just pointing out how far off Shaw’s is in invoking obscenity as a reason for removing the paper.

After all, the photo is freely available on photographer Elsa Dorfman’s Web site (that’s her at the top of this item) and, as Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis tells the Press Herald, is on permanent display at the Museum of Fine Arts. So far, the anti-obscenity cops at the FBI have not descended on either Dorfman’s studio or the MFA.

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  1. Anonymous

    Dan – So far.

  2. Anonymous

    On a more serious note, what would Chong’s position be if the photo in question was of a famous male poet and his *female* lover in the same exact pose, and if that photo was on permanent display at the MFA?

  3. MeTheSheeple

    I think there’s an assumption here that Shaw’s is looking at the legal standards of Miller V. California, which is not necessarily the case. While it sounds lawyer-ese, the company may be following its own definition of “offensive,” which could come back to the “I’ll know it when I see it.”

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Me — I suspect you’re right, but since Shaw’s invoked the word “obscenity,” I couldn’t resist. IMHO, the Ginsberg photo fits into the legal category of “do not view before breakfast.”

  5. Anonymous

    Dan, I know, right? I thought gay guys were into shaving . . .

  6. hooks

    Someone refresh my memory: did Shaw’s not carry the Herald and/or Globe when graphic pictures of Uday and Qusay Hussein’s bloated corpses were media fodder du jour? IIRC, the Herald was on the front page, no less. I highly doubt it.

  7. Steve

    Anon 10:08 – you might be able to test your theory if you can get some 40 year-old data. The Ginsburg/Orlovsky pose is extremely similar to the John and Yoko “Two Virgins” photo. The record album that featured the photo at the time (1968) were impounded or displayed in a plain brown wrapper.(The musical content of the album was far less memorable.)

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