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Austin Cline

Photographs in Public Cannot Be Restricted by Religion

By February 18, 2006

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With the furor over the publishing of cartoons deemed offensive by Muslims, some have wondered if we might enter an era when all the media are unofficially censored according to the dictates of religious belief. In the law, at least, the isn't happening: a Manhattan judge has ruled that a picture taken of an Orthodox Jew in public and sold as art is legally protected.

The New York Post reports:

Emo Nussenzweig filed the suit on the grounds that his religion forbids photographs because they're graven images, according to his lawyer, Jay Goldberg. "It puts him in a disgraceful light within his community," Goldberg said. "It violates the tenets of the particular religious sect to which he belongs. He shouldn't be put in a position where people might think he sold out for a few bucks."

The law here is pretty straightforward: if you are in public, you can have your picture taken and used for a broad array of purposes. If the picture focuses on you, the photographer needs your permission to use it for business purposes like in an advertisement or billboard. If the photograph is used in an artistic context like the photographic show at Chelsea's Pace Gallery, as in this case then no permission is needed. This is also true if the copies of the photo are sold.

This raises interesting aesthetic questions about where the boundary between "art" and "the business of art" is or should be drawn, but it doesn't raise any substantial legal questions. I'm surprised the Goldberg even agreed to take the case to court he surely should have known the the law protects artistic photography. Did he imagine that Emo Nussenzweig's religious beliefs would really trump the law? Perhaps it's not an uncommon belief, after all.


Separation of Church & State:

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