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Group seeks grand jury decision on Kansas City artwork

Wednesday, June 6, 2012 | 5:52 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — A group has begun a petition drive seeking to have a grand jury impaneled to consider whether obscenity charges should be filed over a sculpture at a suburban Kansas City park that depicts a partially nude woman.

The sculpture, "Accept or Reject" by artist Yu Chang, is among 11 artworks donated recently to the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens by a group of Chinese artists. The life-size bronze, on display at the arboretum since November 2011, depicts a woman wearing an opened blouse, her breasts exposed, taking a photograph of herself.

Phillip Cosby, Missouri and Kansas director of the Tupelo, Miss.,-based American Family Association, said Wednesday that the sculpture, also called "Choice," is obscene and should be removed. Cosby, a lobbyist who has led other statewide campaigns against pornography and adult stores, has started a petition drive seeking about 4,000 signatures of local voters to present to Johnson County officials to start the grand jury process. Cosby said Wednesday he's seeking a charge of promotion of obscenity to a minor and/or promotion of obscenity.

"What is distressing about this sculpture is that it's a statue of a fully nude woman and her blouse is open and she is in a sexually aroused state and her arm is extended and she is taking a picture of herself," he said. "The arboretum markets to children pretty heavily. ... They stuck this thing right in the face of the children."

Overland Park spokesman Sean Reilly said the city did not have any immediate plans to remove or relocate the sculpture from the city-owned park. He said Overland Park has posted two signs near the sculpture site telling visitors that "some pieces include a display of the human body."

Kansas is one of about six states that allow citizens to petition for grand juries. Most other grand juries are called by a judge or prosecutor.

Cosby said he has coordinated eight grand jury petitions against pornography in Kansas in the last nine years and has been successful six times. Those cases involved adult pornography at shops in Kansas.

Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said if county officials verify the petition signatures are valid, a judge would impanel the 15-member grand jury. The grand jury would then decide not only if a crime is being committed, but who committed the crime, Howe said. At this point, who would face charges is unclear.

Howe said he could not comment about the chances of the case resulting in criminal charges because his office is "standby counsel" to ensure there's enough information for the grand jury "to make an informed decision." The county has successfully tried other obscenity cases, Howe said, but those involved video shops and were "not in relation to art."

Doug Bonney, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Missouri, said his organization sees competing interests in the case: the right of citizens to petition government and the right to have public art, which is a free speech issue.

"They shouldn't give in to people who are just prudes, it seems to me," he said.

Joanne Hughes, of Stilwell, Kan., brought the issue to the attention of Overland Park officials last month after seeing the sculpture while walking through the arboretum with her two daughters, ages 4 and 2. She said warning signs weren't enough and that a museum would be a more appropriate venue for the piece.

"This is a common place for play dates," she said of the arboretum. "I'm not trying to censor art. I just think there's an appropriate line for kids. I'm not saying destroy it, just move it."


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