"Hands Off Art;" CA Appeals Court Tells State Liquor Control Agency in Palm Springs Controversy

March 7, 2000 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES, CA–California’s Alcohol Beverage Control agency misused its authority when it threatened to revoke the liquor license of an organization displaying an erotic art show, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals here ruled today in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

The agency had threatened to revoke the liquor license of the Palm Springs Convention Center if a 1997 exhibit by the Lifestyles Organization proceeded, even though no alcohol was to be served at the exhibition. No one from either the Palm Springs Convention Center or the agency had seen the art works in question and no judicial determination had been obtained calling the work obscene.

“The Ninth Circuit’s decision casts a fatal blow to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s efforts to censor art,” said ACLU staff attorney Peter Eliasberg, who argued the case.

Days before the show was to open on July 31, 1997, the ACLU of Southern California secured a temporary restraining order on free speech grounds allowing more than 170 works by 38 artists to be displayed.

But the district court thereafter ruled in favor of the agency, on the ground there was no longer a “live” controversy. The Ninth Circuit today reversed, holding that Lifestyles could seek a court order preventing state officials from interfering with future non-obscene erotic art exhibitions on the premises of an ABC licensee. The Court also held that agency officials were not entitled to qualified immunity, since no reasonable official could have believed that the agency’s authority to regulate alcohol allowed it to restrict artistic expression.

The case is Lifestyles Organization, Limited v. Stroh. The ACLU’s previous releases on the case are online at http://archive.aclu.org/news/n072897c.html and http://archive.aclu.org/news/n072997c.html.

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