In October 2011, the French kindergarten teacher Frédéric Durand-Baïssas posted a link on Facebook to an article about Gustave Courbet’s controversial painting “L’Origine du monde” (“The Origin of the World,” 1866). The thumbnail generated alongside the link was, naturally, an image of the painting — a realist closeup of a woman’s vulva. Shortly thereafter, Durand-Baïssas’s Facebook account was deleted without explanation. He promptly sued the social network, claiming it had censored him, setting off a legal saga that finally came to trial last week after years of legal wrangling.
Facebook, which in 2015 changed its rules to permit “handmade art” depicting nudity and sexual activity, maintained that per its terms and conditions, it could only be taken to court in California. However, in 2016 a French court of appeals ruled that the social network should stand trial in France. The first day of that trial was Thursday, February 1.
“Censoring this painting, which is also a hymn to the freedom to create, is an attack against democracy, against the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’,” said Stéphane Cottineau, an attorney for Durand-Baïssas, according to Le Monde. “If Facebook has a different vision of that which is contained in the laws about freedom of expression, it has no right to impose it.”
Durand-Baïssas is demanding €20,000 (~$24,500) in damages, as well as an explanation about why his account was deleted, and for it to be reinstated.
“He had 800 friends on Facebook, 800 friends who wondered why his account had been shut down,” the plaintiff’s other lawyer, Marion Cottineau-Jousse, said in court. “Friends who thought that Durand-Baïssas may have dubious morals, who asked him, and I quote, if he was involved in ‘shady business.’” She added: “He was pointed at, bruised, bumped. How to explain to his 800 friends that he is a good person?”
Facebook’s lawyers have countered that it would be impossible to reinstate his account, since the data belonging to deleted accounts is only kept for 90 days. The social network is seeking a symbolic payment of one euro from Durand-Baïssas for “damage to its image and reputation,” according to Le Monde.
“There is no prejudice, this is merely a fallacious pretext to attract attention,” one Facebook lawyer said on Thursday. Another lawyer for the defense added: “The proof is that shortly after the suppression of his account, Durand-Baïssas created a second one under the pseudonym ‘Trouduc’ [slang for ‘asshole’]. He got his friends back. He continued to post his content, including several images featuring ‘The Origin of the World.’”
Indeed, shortly after his account was deleted, Durand-Baïssas created a new profile and re-shared the Courbet link, without incident. The social network, in fact, has claimed that his original account was shut down not over the Courbet post, but because he had created it using a pseudonym, a violation of its terms and conditions.
“In that case, why not shut down his second account, which is also under a pseudonym,” Cottineau asked in court, “why leave his first account active for two-and-a-half years and suddenly shut it down after Durand-Baïssas posted ‘The Origin of the World’?”
The court is due to deliver its ruling in the case on March 15.
Courbet’s infamous painting is hardly the only work to run afoul of Facebook’s censorious algorithms and content scanners. In 2011, the New York Academy of Art was reprimanded for posting nude artworks by its students; in 2012, the social network censored a painting by Gerhard Richter that the Centre Pompidou had posted on its page; and in 2016, an image of Copenhagen’s iconic “Little Mermaid” statue proved too hot to handle for the social network. Even Hyperallergic has had its run-ins with Facebook’s opaque nudity policies. In response to the social network’s seemingly puritan attitude toward nudity, artists even organized Facebook Nudity Day in 2016, encouraging users to post images of nude art en masse.
Updated, 3/19/2018: On Thursday, March 15, the French court hearing Durand-Baïssas’s case against Facebook dismissed it, stating that the material presented by the prosecution “does not demonstrate with the necessary rigor that the deactivation … was due to the posting of the painting.”
However, Durand-Baïssas’s attorney, Stéphane Cottineau, has pledged to appeal the decision. “It is important for freedom of expression that we be able to post artworks on social networks,” he told Le Figaro. “We will continue to fight.”
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.