Two more states investigate Sturges books

Thursday, February 19, 1998

Three months after a Tennessee grand jury indicted a bookstore for selling Jock Sturges’ photography books, two more states have embarked on investigations into whether the photos of naked children constitute child pornography.


An Alabama grand jury recently indicted Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest bookseller, on child pornography charges. In Kansas, a conservative citizens’ group successfully petitioned a judge to convene a grand jury in Sedgwick County.


Sturges’ photos are causing outcries not heard since photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibits came under fire in the 1980s. Protests of Sturges’ work have been staged in cities including New York City, Dallas, Denver and Omaha, Neb.


But the courts began getting involved last November after a grand jury in Williamson County, Tenn., indicted Barnes & Noble for displaying three photography books in view of minors. The New York-based bookseller pleaded innocent to violating the state’s obscenity law and faces a March 2 hearing.


The charges are misdemeanors punishable by 30 days in jail and fines of up to $50 per day for each violation or both.

Although the Alabama grand jury returned its indictment on Feb. 6, the decision was not made public until Feb. 18. It involves 15 counts over the sale of The Age of Innocence by French photographer David Hamilton and 17 counts over the sale of Sturges’ Radiant Identities. If convicted on the felony charges, Barnes & Noble could be fined up to $320,000.


Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor said he started the grand jury investigation after receiving complaints about the books. The indictment accuses Barnes & Noble of distributing “obscene material containing visual reproduction of persons under 17 years of age involved in obscene acts.”


Pryor contends the work is pornography rather than art because the photographs are “designed to elicit a sexual response.


“We must protect children from those who would exploit their innocence for financial gain under the guise of so-called art,” he said.


Meanwhile, in Kansas, the Family Research Institute, a conservative Christian group, began circulating petitions asking for a grand jury to convene after Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston declined to take action.


County Administrative Judge Paul Buchanan announced Wednesday that there were enough signatures on the petitions—3,400—to force a grand jury to convene. He said he expects the 15-member grand jury to begin meeting in late March or April.


Foulston said in September that Kansas law does not apply to the Sturges books. On Wednesday, she announced that she had hired Jack Focht, a prominent Wichita lawyer, to serve as special prosecutor for the grand jury proceedings.


Sturges, reached at his San Francisco studio, said the states are wasting taxpayers’ money on the prosecution because the photographs “are not done flirtatiously” and have been displayed in major museums worldwide.


Paul Boas, a Pittsburg, Kan., attorney representing Sturges, said people have previously called for censoring Sturges’ work, but legal experts across the country have repeatedly found nothing illegal about it.


David Payne, executive director of the Kansas Family Research Institute, said his group’s members are happy the petition drive was successful.


“We’re still of the opinion that any citizen in our community with any sense of decency would be very opposed to the sale or distribution of this material,” he said, adding that the group is concerned that such photos might lead to child abuse.


—From Associated Press reports.


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