Photographer battles criminal investigation

Tuesday, December 29, 1998

A Pennsylvania photographer, battling both a civil lawsuit and an ongoing criminal investigation of child pornography charges, claims that county prosecutors violated her First Amendment rights after they seized a collection of photographs from her home.


Kathryn Lesoine, in a lawsuit against officials in Lackawanna County, Pa., says the district attorney’s office “engaged in a wholesale seizure of photographs and negatives” without a post-seizure hearing to determine whether the First Amendment protected her work.


Although the district attorney’s office hasn’t pressed charges against Lesoine, it refuses to return the photographs or negatives seized as evidence in 1996. Michael Collins, Lesoine’s attorney, says District Attorney Michael Barasse continues to threaten prosecution.


“It’s very chilling, and it’s very intimidating,” Collins told freedomforum.org. “Kathryn Lesoine is afraid to even use her camera.”


Lesoine, who often photographs nude subjects including minors, contends that prosecutors violated her First Amendment right of free expression. Collins says that even the district attorney has determined that Lesoine’s work isn’t pornographic.


Lesoine’s case dates back to July 1995, when she took a series of photographs of her stepdaughter, her niece and two of their friends. According to court filings, the pictures show the girls – all 15 or 16 years old at the time – huddled under the spray from an outdoor shower.


According to Lesoine’s lawsuit, many of the photographs were part of a work to be called “Light Beings,” a study of the moment when the spirit becomes flesh and illuminates human form. Another series of photographs examined ideals embodied by mythical Greek characters such as Persephone and Demeter.


Several of the teens’ parents said that some of the photos showed genitalia.


According to court documents, one of the parents alerted the Lackawanna County District Attorney’s Office and demanded that officials seize the pictures. In May 1996, police searched Lesoine’s house and seized photographs, a computer, equipment and some of her writings.


Prosecutors later determined that the photographs were not obscene. Although officials returned the writings, equipment and the computer, they haven’t returned the photographs or negatives, saying the criminal investigation against Lesoine remains open.


To date, no criminal charges have been filed against the photographer.


The parents of one of the girls, however, filed a civil action against Lesoine and her husband, William Chamberlin, in November 1997 alleging that the pictures contain “lascivious exhibition of the genitals.” The lawsuit, which cites the federal Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act of 1986, claims the family has suffered emotional distress and invasion of privacy because of Lesoine.


Lesoine subsequently sued the county, the district attorney’s office and the police officer who conducted the search, claiming they violated her civil rights, including her First Amendment right to express herself through photography. Lesoine also contends in her suit that Barasse gave the parents copies of the photographs to use as evidence against her.


District Attorney Barasse hasn’t responded to questions left with members of his staff.


In a statement drafted by the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, representatives of a couple of dozen free-expression groups have denounced the lingering investigation as an attempt to “demonize fine art.”


“The mere existence of a non-graphic nude photograph provides no justification for restricting the right of free expression,” the statement said. “This endeavor to silence and punish a respected artistic form threatens all forms of expression.”