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MOCA's Exhibit Protected By First Amendment, Says Constitutional Law Expert

Annie Black

A protest is scheduled for downtown Jacksonville Wednesday night during Art Walk–and it involves an art exhibit.

Controversy flared after Jacksonville City Council President Clay Yarborough called for funding of the Museum of Contemporary Art or MOCA to be pulled.  Yarborough objected to a photo of a nude pregnant woman displayed in the museum’s atrium, calling the image "pornography."
However, the museum’s vocal supporters say he’s stifling free expression.
Officials from the museum and Cultural Council strongly defend the artwork by photographer Angela Strassheim, which shows a nude reclining woman in her eighth month of pregnancy.
The dustup has sparked a lively online discussion on local social media platforms about freedom of artistic expression and the protections provided by the First Amendment.
Professor of Florida Coastal School of Law, Rod Sullivan joined Melissa Ross Tuesday on First Coast Connect to discuss this issue.

“The government doesn’t have any obligation to fund art, but once it does it has created a designated public forum for free expression. When that happens, all of a sudden all of the art is protected by the First Amendment. Any restriction on a piece of artwork because of its content violates the protection of the First Amendment. So it violates both the civil rights of MOCA and the artist herself,” said Sullivan.

“If it’s pornography it has no First Amendment protection, but this clearly is not pornography.”

Meanwhile, Strassheim said she was “shocked” to hear Yarborough called her photo pornographic.

“I see an intimate moment of a nude, very pregnant woman basking in the last bit of afternoon sunlight as she waits for the birth of her child,” Strassheim told The Financial News and Daily Record. “She is not affected by the cold of winter outside her window.”

Supporters of MOCA are planning a protest during the Wednesday night Art Walk; more than 700 people have confirmed they will attend.

You can follow Melissa Ross on Twitter @MelissainJax

Melissa Ross joined WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. During her career as a television and radio news anchor and reporter, Melissa has won four regional Emmys for news and feature reporting.