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Censoring a Facebook Post Showing a Naked Statuette?

FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the internet.

We tend to think of censorship happening in other countries, and not so much in the United States. Just like the government can't violate the First Amendment, we like to think that private companies would be equally generous in allowing freedom of expression, unless something is truly troublesome in nature. Well ...

As it turns out, Facebook recently censored a post that displayed a very small 30,000-year-old statuette carved in the image of a naked woman and referred to as the "Venus of Willendorf," according to USAToday.com.

A Facebook spokesperson has since apologized for Facebook not allowing the post in the first instance, but how did this all come to pass?

This all started a few months ago in December when an Italian arts activist, Laura Ghianda, posted a photo of the Venus on Facebook. After this post went viral, Facebook censored the photo. Ghianda was not amused, and she expressed anger about the "war on human culture and [proclaimed that] modern intellectualism will not be tolerated."

After that, the Natural History Museum in Vienna, where the statuette is located, chimed in, stating that an "archeological object, especially such an iconic one, should not be banned from Facebook because of 'nudity,' as no artwork should be." Indeed, as noted by the museum, there "has never been a complaint by visitors [to the museum] concerning the nakedness of the figurine."

The Venus is a fertility symbol, and was discovered in Willdendorf, an Austrian village, in the early part of the 20th century. The Venus is regarded by some as the major attraction of the museum and arguably the most well known prehistoric rendering of a woman in the entire world.

In the wake of the museum's strong rebuke of the censorship, Facebook apologized. Facebook did explain that its policies generally do not allow depictions of suggested nudity, much less actual nudity. But, Facebook's statement goes on to say that "we make an exception for statues, which is why the post should have been approved" in the first place.

Meanwhile, USAToday.com reports that on March 15 a French court will decide whether Facebook properly closed down the account of a Facebook user who posted "L'Origine du monde" by Gustave Courbet -- a painting from the 19th century that plainly shows a woman's genital area.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please email him at ejsinrod@duanemorris.com with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.

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