L’Origine du Monde. Image via Wikimedia Commons
This is the L'Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World), an 1866 painting by Gustave Courbet which now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay. It features a woman reclining in a sheet with her legs spread, completely exposing her lady bits to the observer. The erotic nature of the work (which doesn’t even feature the woman’s face) has mired it in controversy pretty much from the get-go, and it is frequently cited as an example in the perennial debate about how to delineate art and pornography.
Much ink has been spilled trying to permanently establish what qualifies as art or porn over the years, and while this may seem like an abstract philosophical debate, it has serious real world consequences. Case in point is 57-year old Parisian teacher Frederic Durand-Baissas, who had his Facebook profile suspended without notice in 2011, which he claims is the result of posting a photo of L'Origine du Monde. Five years of legal proceedings came to a head on Friday, when a Paris court ruled that Durand-Baissas can sue Facebook for $22,550 in damages as well as the reactivation of his account in the country’s highest appeals court.
"This is a case of free speech and censorship on a social network," Durand-Baissas told The Associated Press. "If (Facebook) can't see the difference between an artistic masterpiece and a pornographic image, we in France (can)."
This ruling may set a precedent for similar cases in France. Up until Friday, Facebook’s lawyers argued that, as per its Terms of Service, cases such as Durand-Baissas’ must be heard in a court in Santa Clara, California, where Facebook is headquartered. Facebook’s legal defense also argued that since it is a free, world-wide service, French consumer-rights laws don’t apply to its roughly 30 million French users.
The French appeals court dismissed these arguments, deeming the requirement that similar lawsuits be settled in a Santa Clara court “unfair,” and that the terms and conditions signed when creating a Facebook account does subject the company to consumer-rights laws in France.
“This is a great satisfaction and a great victory after five years of legal action," lawyer Stephane Cottineau, who represents Durand-Baissas, told The Associated Press.
"On one hand, Facebook shows a total permissiveness regarding violence and ideas conveyed on the social network,” Cottineau continued. “And on the other hand, (it) shows an extreme prudishness regarding the body and nudity. Web giants...will have now to answer for their possible faults in French courts."
Durand-Baissas is the second Facebook user to be banned from the social media site for posting a photo of L'Origine du Monde (a Danish artist was also suspended in 2011), although a number of other artists have also been censored for posting photos deemed inappropriate by Facebook. In 2014, it blocked the account of the Canadian New Media Art Festival over a nude image, and in January it temporarily blocked the account of a Brooklyn gallery after it posted promotional images featuring artist Lisa Levy sitting naked on a toilet.
In March of 2015, Facebook updated its Community Standards page to provide “more detail and clarity” about its policy on nudity. The updated standards now read: “We restrict the display of nudity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content—particularly because of their cultural background or age,” yet these same standards also include a clause that reads: “We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.”
Whether Durand-Baissas will win his case against the social media giant remains to be seen, although Facebook seems confident the case will come to naught.
"This case dates back more than five years and Facebook has evolved considerably since then," spokeswoman Christine Chen toldThe Associated Press. "While we are disappointed by today's ruling on jurisdiction, we remain confident that the court will find the underlying case itself to be without merit."