Homosexual Arts Group Sues Milwaukee for Discrimination

November 11, 2008 - 6:19 PM
A gay arts group has sued the city of Milwaukee in federal court for violating its free speech rights three years ago when officials shut down a musical revue featuring nudity.

This undated file photo originally supplied by the producers of

Milwaukee (AP) - A gay arts group has sued the city of Milwaukee in federal court for violating its free speech rights three years ago when officials shut down a musical revue featuring nudity.
 
The city temporarily shut down performances of "Naked Boys Singing!" in August 2005 while it considered the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center's application for a theater permit. The group later received a permit and reopened the show.
 
Larry Dupuis, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, which is handling the case, said the city's enforcement seemed unusually zealous, even given the musical's content.
 
"I think the title made it kind of controversial," Dupuis said. "But of course, `The Full Monty' has nudity in it, and that doesn't get it threats to shut it down."
 
The lawsuit, filed Monday, says the city ordinance is unconstitutional because it gives officials "unbridled discretion" over when permits must be obtained and how applications will be handled. It also says the law could be used to restrict certain viewpoints.
 
Eileen Force, a spokeswoman for Mayor Tom Barrett, declined to comment on the lawsuit, and a call to the office of City Attorney Grant Langley rang unanswered Monday afternoon.
 
Dupuis said few, if any, other nonprofit theater groups have been required to get permits from the city.
 
He also expressed concern that the city's law does not require officials to approve or deny theater permit applications in a timely fashion. If they don't like a show's content, they can simply not act, he said.
 
"It could be used to discriminate," Dupuis said, "and we suspect that there was some sort of discriminatory thinking that went into the decision-making somewhere along the line."
 
The Milwaukee Gay Arts Center had already started performances of "Naked Boys Singing!" when police received a complaint about what the caller described as "illegal nude theater," Dupuis said.
 
The lawsuit claims the center had applied for a permit but not yet received it. Also, the city council was not expected to act on its application until its meeting in September 2005.
 
The show's director canceled an Aug. 18 performance, as well as others planned for that month after a detective told him participants could be arrested for performing without a permit, the lawsuit says.
 
When MGAC opened the show months later, it drew smaller audiences and incurred additional advertising and other costs, Dupuis said. He would not say how much money the center lost on the show, and the lawsuit does not seek a specific amount of damages.
 
"Naked Boys Singing!" has run into trouble with authorities before in such cities as Provincetown, Mass.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Atlanta. Eventually, all three cities held performances of the show.
 
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Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report.