SAN BERNARDINO—The ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) sued the County of San Bernardino today for violating the free speech rights of Efren Montiel Jimenez, a local artist. County officials removed two paintings by Mr. Jimenez and one by another artist from a Hispanic National Heritage Art Exhibit displayed in the County of San Bernardino Government Center simply because some viewers had complained about the paintings. The law firm of Jenner & Block LLP also represents Mr. Jimenez.
County officials have commemorated Hispanic Heritage Month since 2009. The commemoration includes inviting local artists to exhibit their work at the Government Center, which is a designated public forum for the duration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The displays are hosted by the San Bernardino County Hispanic Employees Alliance and the Inland Empire Latino Art Association. The invitation to artists does not detail criteria, requirements or restrictions on art submissions regarding the content of artwork in the Hispanic Heritage Month Art Exhibit. Furthermore, the county has never pre-screened pieces for the exhibit.
Shortly after the exhibit opened on September 16, 2013, county officials demanded three paintings, two by Mr. Jimenez and one by artist Armando Aleman, be removed.  Two of the paintings portray nude figures of women and one depicts the nude backside of a person worshipping the sun.
In September, the ACLU SoCal and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) sent a letter informing officials that removal of the artwork violated the artists’ First Amendment right to free expression and urged officials to restore the paintings to the exhibit. The county never responded and failed to comply.
“The center is a designated public forum during the observation of Hispanic Heritage Month and government officials cannot arbitrarily decide what is and is not art,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU SoCal. “Since 2009 they have accepted and displayed all submissions. Once they open up the building to art displays without restriction, they cannot then censor some of it because a member of the public complains.  The First Amendment protects all speech, even expressions that some individuals may not like.”
“We often encounter the removal of artwork from public venues in response to a complaint,” said Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs for the National Coalition Against Censorship. “But in the majority of cases, once we make them aware of their First Amendment obligations, public officials quickly correct their error and put the work back on display. In San Bernardino, county officials have been singularly intransigent. Their irresponsible actions have exposed the county to costly litigation.”
The lawsuit seeks to have the three paintings returned to display for as long as they were improperly censored.
Download the petition.
Media contact: Diana Rubio or Vicki Fox 213.977.5252