A Magazine Publisher Is Suing Virginia’s Prisons for Censoring a Rubens Painting of Adam and Eve

The Department of Corrections won a lifetime award from an organization that calls out censorship.

Peter Paul Rubens, Adam and Eve (1597–1600). Via Wikimedia Commons.
Peter Paul Rubens, Adam and Eve (1597–1600). Via Wikimedia Commons.

An inmate in a Virginia prison is still waiting for the July/August issue of The Humanist magazine, which was rejected by prison censors over a depiction of Adam and Eve by 17th-century master Peter Paul Rubens. Though the first couple’s genitalia are obscured by fig leaves, Eve’s breasts are exposed.

The censorship by the Department of Corrections (DOC) has given rise to a legal complaint, filed August 31 by Charlottesville attorney Jeffrey E. Fogel, who claims that the rejection of the publication violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments and has caused financial harm to the publisher.

“The right to read and learn is covered by the First Amendment, as is the right to communicate with others,” Fogel told artnet News.

A recent issue of <i>The Humanist<i>.

A recent issue of The Humanist.

Fogel filed the complaint behalf of the American Humanist Association, which publishes The Humanist as part of its stated mission “to bring about a progressive society where being good without a god is an accepted and respected way to live life.” Rubens’s painting of the fall from grace, which hangs in the Rubenshuis, in Antwerp, illustrates an article titled “Everything You Know about Sex is Wrong,” which aims to debunk binary concepts of gender. Fogel acknowledged the irony that a depiction of a Biblical subject printed in a humanist magazine gave rise to this series of events.

With a mix of pride and regret, Fogel noted that it’s his seventh case against the DOC. He has won all the past complaints, he said, which have involved rejections of instructional magazines for aspiring artists and the magazine of the Nation of Islam, among others.

“They also rejected a book that I helped to put together, The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook: How to Bring a Federal Lawsuit to Challenge Violations of Your Rights in Prison,” he said. “They gave in pretty quickly on that one.”

The suit specifically names a warden and the director of the department. The DOC declined to comment on the case.

Fogel isn’t the only one who has noted the DOC’s hypervigilance. The Charlottesville-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression bestowed its “Muzzle Award” upon the department in 2010, 2011, and in 2012, when it granted the department a lifetime award.

Fogel’s complaint points out that the DOC’s rules allow for nudity in cases of “medical, educational, or anthropological content,” so he maintains that the magazine should have been allowed.

The official seal of the state of Virginia. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The official seal of the state of Virginia. Via Wikimedia Commons.

He also points out, in another irony, that the seal of the state of Virginia itself depicts a woman in classical garb with one breast exposed. “We’re looking forward to the process of discovery,” said Fogel, “when we’ll find out how many places the seal is displayed in Virginia prisons.”


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