By: James Williams,

Censorship, some people love it, while others loathe it. Does it save society? If so, then from what? Does it harm society? The definition of censorship allows for subjectivity and ambiguity.[1]

Most people know about Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment, but some may not know that the painting originally featured fully nude characters and had to be covered later for the Church.[2]

In a more recent case, Andres Serrano took a photograph of a crucifix that he had submerged in urine, dubbing it Piss Christ.[3]  Interestingly enough, it was well-received in New York, but North Carolina citizens were not so enthusiastic, and protesters smashed it with a hammer.[4]

With social media, the owners of websites or applications are able to take down content or set restrictions because they are held by private owners. Grace Coddington, Creative Designer at Large for Vogue, made a drawing of a nude figure and posted it on Instagram, where Instagram actually disabled her account.[5]  There are questions about what rights or restrictions these popular platforms should have versus the rights of artists. Some artists claim free speech violations or other violations of the expression, and the classic response is that this is not a governmental ban on free speech. What should artists do regarding vague censorship rules that are haphazardly drafted by privately owned social media platforms?

Instagram has censorship rules that have caused problems rooted in subjectivity and lack of clarity.[6]  Subjectivity makes the censorship policies hard to understand because there are regional differences.[7]  There are special categories of what is “appropriate” for children, which some platforms use as the basis of their policy.[8]  Instagram has a policy[9] against nudity, but it makes a few exceptions for sculptures, breastfeeding mothers, and photos of mastectomy scarring that tend to make it more ambiguous than it is insightful.[10]  The policy specifically mentions a ban on the female nipple[11],  but the elusive male nipple goes unmentioned.

Besides lack of clarity and subjectivity problems, the next problem with censorship rules on social media platforms are the forms of punishment for violating the rules. While some artists’ work is simply removed and the account is still available[12], this punishment is at the lighter end of the spectrum. Artists can lose ALL pictures and access to the account.[13]  This goes beyond simply taking down the picture(s), because they are actually removing the artwork, which may or may not have been the only copy of the art. The ability for platforms to immediately disable the account and then provide notice after its deletion, is similar to civil procedure issues regarding pre-trial seizures, but here there isn’t a chance for the artists to get the art returned nor is there a chance for artists to make a case. It’s not exactly helpful to get notice after the art is taken down, either.

Not all pages are quite as aggressive towards these types of artists. Some websites, like DeviantArt, filter content or access.[14]  Should platforms like Instagram create filters for content to provide minors from accessing the so-called obscene content? DeviantArt has a policy of preventing visitors without an account, or those whose birthdays show they are under 18, from seeing content that has been flagged mature.[15]  They also are more forgiving in the sense that they will not disable the account for that, they will merely take the art down and notify the artist.[16]

Currently, time may be the only resource for artists on platforms like Instagram where the societal standards may shift more in favor of relaxed censorship policies. Otherwise, artists will just have to find platforms similar to DeviantArt that are more permissive and then encourage others to follow in their footsteps.


[1] Censorship, Oxford Dictionaries Online, (2017) (“[T]he suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.”).

[2] Priscilla Frank, A Brief History Of Art Censorship From 1508 To 2014, Huffington Post (updated Jan. 22, 2015),

[3] Id.

 [4] Id.

[5] Alice Newell-Hanson, how artists are responding to instagram’s no-nudity policy, Vice (Aug. 15, 2016, 2:10PM),

[6] See id.

[7] See supra note 2.

[8] See Instagram, (last visited Sep. 30, 2017).

[9] Id.

[10] Supra note 5 (discussing how artists don’t know what will cause images to be removed contrasted to accounts being disabled).

[11] Supra note 7.

[12] Supra note 5.

[13] Id.

[14] DeviantArt, (last visited Sep. 30, 2017).

[15] Id.

[16] DeviantArt, (last visited Sep. 30, 2017).

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