Facebook Nudity Policy Versus Free Speech

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An upcoming court trial in France may impact what can or cannot be posted on Facebook. People post a lot of inane things as well as interesting ones on the social media site. However, this case involves the Facebook policy for posting nudity versus the right to free speech. Should a court decide what is permissible or does the company have the right to set the rules?

The issue at hand involves fine art, not pornography or Kardashian selfies. A Parisian teacher, Frederic Durand-Baissas, had his Facebook account suspended by the company five years ago after he posted a photo of a 1866 painting by Gustave Courbet, L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), that hangs in the Musée d’Orsay. The painting is of a nude woman with her legs spread showing her pubic hair and genitalia.

A French appeals court cleared the way for the 57-year-old Parisian to sue the social network over the issue. Durand-Baissas wants his account reactivated and is seeking €20,000 (about $22,550) in damages. To the Frenchman, this is a case of free speech and censorship on a social network. However, the issue is broader.

The points of contention are French norms versus American, suspending someone’s account without first asking the person to remove an offensive image, what is acceptable to post and what is not, as well as user’s rights versus Facebook’s. Another sticking point has been that the French have wanted Facebook to take down violent extremist material, and the social media site refused.

The social network does have “Community Standards” as to what types of nudity is acceptable, which were last tweaked in March 2015 to provide more clarity. The policy in place now says that Facebook restricts photos of genitals or fully exposed buttocks. They also restrict images of breasts that show the nipple, unless the image is of a woman breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring.

“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,” the policy states. It goes on the note that policies can sometimes restrict content shared for legitimate purposes and be blunt, but they do that to treat people uniformly. The policy does go on to state, “We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.”

It is not clear what the policy said at the time the account was suspended, but one could argue that they do not have to allow any content they deem unacceptable. It is their Website! Yes, they have to balance their desire to be accessible to nearly everyone worldwide as a means of communicating with “friends” and the public at large. The company’s standards even note, “Our mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

Durand-Baissas is not the first person whose account has been shut down because of posting artworks that cross the line. Facebook has maintained that suite about its policies should be heard in California, where the company is based. They also have argues that French consumer rights should not apply here since the service is free and people do not have to use it. However, the French courts disagreed, which paved the way for the upcoming court battle pitting Facebook’s policy on posting nudity versus free speech.

Opinion by Dyanne Weiss

Facebook: Community Standards
New York Times: What Facebook’s Policy on Nudity Means in Practice
Washington Post: Facebook nude-painting case can face trial in France
ABC News: Facebook Nude-Painting Case Can Face Trial in France

Photo Courtesy of Thos Ballantyne’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License