Buffalo police have a hard enough job without taking on the role of art censors, which is why it's a bit surprising that a couple of officers felt like they had to trample on the First Amendment rights of Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center and those of the 1,700 people in attendance at the Artists and Models Ball earlier this month.
Worse still, those officers took the word of one man who called in to complain about what he deemed pornography being shown at the annual event, held in the Buffalo Convention Center.
The officers responded to an anonymous complaint about the ball, specifically that pornographic movies were being shown to minors. The police ordered a video unplugged that formed part of one artwork, and Hallwalls security staff closed a second artwork as a pre-emptive measure. A well-meaning gesture on their part, but misplaced nonetheless.
The officers defended their action by saying that Hallwalls doesn't screen children from its events. Patrol Chief Larry Ramunno said a group of children, ages 11 to 15, were standing in front of a couple of provocative videos.
Hallwalls Executive Director Edmund Cardoni said the notion of minors being present is a red herring. Minors do not come to such events, although older teenagers are welcome. However, they are not served alcohol.
Ramunno said he's worked with Cardoni over the past six years, spearheading security, to make the event a citywide success. Ramunno's officers told him they responded to a complaint given by an anonymous caller, without knowing any history of someone calling in the past.
Ramunno said the police are not in the censorship business, instead allowing judges to set the community standard. However, some of the material appeared pornographic, he continued, noting that even Cardoni said some of the art was on the cutting edge.
The patrol chief clearly doesn't get it. This event is supposed to be cutting edge. Whenever the police barge into an artistic event, acting as the moral majority, it's difficult not to violate First Amendment rights. We don't think for a minute that these officers set out to do that. They were responding to a citizen complaint. But clearly they should have exercised a bit more discretion.
Ramunno had it right the first time. Judges ought to set the community standard, not the police.