On the Friday in 1990 when the collection of 175 photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe called “The Perfect Moment,” previewed at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, 8,000 people showed up to see them.
The CAC was seven blocks from my law office. On the Saturday morning that the exhibit opened to the public we heard that the Hamilton County prosecutor had empaneled a grand jury to get an indictment by noon, so we sent out scouts to determine when the police were going to arrest the CAC’s director, Dennis Barrie. But Cincinnati is a small town, and our scouts told us that the cops had stopped for lunch along the way.
Eventually Dennis was charged with obscenity for five explicit photos depicting gay S&M sex and one count of exhibiting two photos of nude children. If convicted, he could have spent two years in jail and paid $2,000 in fines. The CAC would have had to pay $10,000 in fines. The psychic cost for countless artists and museums as they self-censored to avoid obscenity charges also would have been high.
I spent the next six months working on Dennis’s defense; ultimately a jury judged him not guilty that October. The trial demonstrated that the rights to freedom of expression designated in the Constitution must be fought for — and that they sometimes hinge on narrow legal distinctions.