the shipping nudes

Why have certain postal services decided to become arbiters of obscenity?

Published December 10, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

On May 20, Craig Morey did what he had been doing for years. He chose a few fine art prints to send to his publisher in England, took them to a local DHL Worldwide Express office, filled out the paperwork and sent them on their way.

Morey, a well-known photographer whose work has been published and exhibited in the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Great Britain, Switzerland and Scandinavia, had never encountered any difficulty in shipping photographic prints before. This time, however, he was posting photos from Cincinnati, rather than from his home in San Francisco. Southern Ohio is a different world from San Francisco, but Morey didn't think the difference would affect something as basic as his ability to ship copies of his work.

Two days after Morey gave his prints to DHL, his package was mysteriously returned to him with no explanation aside from the obvious fact that it had been opened and examined. Perplexed, he called DHL and spoke to a woman in customer service who identified herself as Jeannie. Jeannie informed him that the photos had been determined by DHL to be pornographic. "DHL does not handle pornography," she added curtly.

Morey's elegant, erotic nudes hardly qualify as pornography. He favors conventionally attractive models, emotionally aloof, posed on draped platforms, artistically lit, meticulously printed in black and white. Although Morey sometimes includes light bondage imagery -- models with their wrists or ankles bound with heavy cord or leather -- the mood of his photos is consistently serene, rather than passionate or violent.

The four prints in question are hardly controversial. Two are classic nudes. In one, a woman is seen from behind, not showing her breasts, her genitals or her face. The other shows a woman's legs with her hand between them. The two remaining photographs are stylized bondage shots. One shows a woman in a leather corset and collar, her wrists bound and raised over her head. In the other, the same woman kneels, blindfolded; her wrists bound behind her are being pulled, not forcefully, to the side by a chain.

Insofar as the women's breasts are bare, the photos are one step beyond standard fashion photography (although that standard wavers even in the pages of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar), but they would never be deemed legally obscene in the United States. Even the more stringent obscenity criteria of Great Britain, where Morey's prints were headed, permit publication and distribution of photos such as these.

Trying to understand what it was about his photographs that DHL considered objectionable, Morey asked Jeannie -- and eventually her supervisor, John
Corrigan, operations manager for DHL in Cincinnati -- for clarification. Was it the nudity? The bondage? The tone of the photos? Was there a DHL policy on what constituted pornography? Or was it simply that Jeannie, or Corrigan, or someone else who had inspected Morey's parcel, was offended by his work? Unable to get any explanation beyond a reiteration that the photos had
been declared by DHL to be pornographic and therefore undeliverable, Morey requested a written statement of DHL's policy on pornography, only to be told
that none was available. Throughout the interaction both Jeannie and Corrigan were "rude and unprofessional," Morey maintains. When he persisted, they dismissed him by saying, "I have nothing else to say to you."

How does an international courier service like DHL determine what material is legally obscene? Does it follow U.S. statutes, or those of the foreign country the material is destined for? Is it required, appropriate or
even legal for a private corporation to make its own judgments on these
matters, rather than leaving such issues to police authorities or customs officials? Is an international courier entitled to restrict material it finds objectionable, regardless of whether that material is legally obscene? And how does a shipping company determine what material it will and will not handle, and how does it then communicate those criteria to the hundreds of individuals scattered across the country who must make specific decisions to accept or reject the individual packages they find in their hands?

Trying to find answers to these questions, I was passed from one DHL office to another until I found my way to David Fonkelsrud, a DHL public relations specialist located in San Carlos, Calif.

"DHL is governed by the customs regulations of all the countries we ship to," began Fonkelsrud, reasonably enough. "There are differences in the customs
regulations of different countries. We reserve the right, as
do all private express carriers, to open and inspect the contents of any shipment."

I explained that I wasn't challenging DHL's right to inspect packages but was simply questioning why DHL had put itself in the business of trying to decide what British customs would or would not consider obscene.

"We do it as a customer service," Fonkelsrud said, arguing that DHL was merely trying to protect the interests of its customers. "If a customer were to send a package and have it rejected by customs [in some foreign country], we would have to make the customer pay for the return shipping of the package."

I pointed out that Morey -- and probably other customers as well -- would certainly prefer to pay return shipping in the unlikely event that his
photographs were rejected by British customs, rather than be unable to ship
his package at all. While admitting that such issues can be "very touchy," Fonkelsrud defended DHL's policy because screening smooths DHL's relationship with customs officials. If DHL were to ship packages that ended up being rejected or seized by customs, he maintained, "It would reflect negatively on DHL. We would lose our credibility. If they know we prescreen, they don't scrutinize our shipments as closely as they would otherwise, and that saves customers cost and time."

"DHL is not in the business of testing the bounds of foreign customs
restrictions," he said, maintaining (incorrectly, as it turns
out) that "DHL has a legal obligation to ensure that shipments in its networks
are in compliance with foreign customs laws and restrictions."

"Many countries, such as the U.K., have prohibitions on the importation of
pornography," he said. "Since the shipment in question contained nude photography, it fell into this category." Nudity equals pornography. End of story.

Incredibly, Fonkelsrud seemed genuinely surprised to hear that neither current American law nor current British customs policy equates nudity with pornography. He repeated his belief
that "a naked photograph would more than likely be considered pornography."
Presumably, in this case, he meant that nudity would be considered pornography
by British customs. "After 25 years of operating in this business," he assured me, "we have a good understanding of customs regulations in other
countries." I explained that while photographs involving bondage are more
questionable, there is no country in Western Europe that considers nude
photography to be inherently pornographic. Fonkelsrud didn't budge.

"Let me be absolutely clear," I said, "You're telling me that no one can ship a nude photograph of any kind to the U.K. via DHL."

"That's right," Fonkelsrud answered.

"What about nude photographs shipped within the U.S.?" I asked.

"The same procedure would apply," Fonkelsrud said.

"What about written material?" I asked, going a step further.

DHL, said Fonkelsrud, would apply the same "conservative approach" to any
written material that could possibly be considered pornographic.

When asked how DHL personnel are supposed to understand not only
the subtle differences between pornography and erotica, but also how
these subtleties will be interpreted by a particular customs official on a
particular morning in a particular office somewhere in London, Fonkelsrud
refused to answer. He had had enough of me for one afternoon.

"We don't disclose [the details of how we enforce these policies]," he said,
"because we don't want to communicate that information to people who are
attempting to get around our procedures." He did tell me that training in
these matters is developed in conjunction with DHL's legal department, and
that the training is given to all service and operations personnel,
management and individual couriers.

So, DHL will ship no nude photographs, no books that are so much as semi-risqui -- overseas or within the United States. Presumably that means DHL will never ship any illustrated art history books either, although I failed to inquire specifically about those. This policy seems all the more preposterous given the recent report in Washingtonian magazine that Larry Hillblom, the late founder of DHL, lived on an island in the South Pacific where he allegedly imported not photos, but live Asian virgins for his pleasure. Absurd? Indeed. Inconvenient? Definitely. Censorship? Well, that's another matter. There are, after all, other carriers. Or are there?

After his confrontation with DHL, Morey took the same photos to Federal
Express, and they arrived safely at his publisher's office in London the next
day, bright and early, just like any other package -- no questions asked, no
hassles, no inspections -- neither from FedEx nor from British customs.

Indeed, Federal Express policy turns out to be the very opposite of DHL's,
belying Fonkelsrud's claim that common carriers have "a legal obligation to
ensure that shipments... are in compliance with foreign customs laws and
restrictions." Larisse Woods, an international customer service
representative at FedEx, explained that Federal Express never
opens, inspects, or attempts to screen packages, neither for domestic nor
for international shipment. Even if a customer were to advise FedEx that they
were shipping photographs that might be deemed
pornographic, she said, FedEx would leave the matter up to customs officials
of the destination country. Fine art nudes, she assured me casually, would definitely not be a problem. Material that was legally obscene would be another matter, but Federal Express would not presume to determine what is or is not legally obscene separate from governmental authorities.

United Parcel Service, on the other hand, has a policy that is
fully as intrusive as DHL's. According to Mary Ellen Brinson,
a manager in the San Antonio UPS customer service department who was more than
a little reluctant to answer my questions, nude photographs of any sort would
be rejected out of hand by UPS, just like DHL.

"So you're telling me," I demanded in my most incredulous tone of voice, "that UPS would not, for example, accept an art history textbook that included a photograph of a 16th century painting of a nude?" I was ferrying questions to
manager Brinson through a cooperative customer service underling who kept
failing to get Brinson to actually talk to me herself.

"That's correct," I was told.

"Are there written criteria by which UPS personnel determine what material is acceptable and what is objectionable?" I persisted.

Brinson passed word that UPS does not have any fixed criteria, that it
would be up to each individual UPS worker to decide what he or she thought was
proper and improper, pornographic and non-pornographic, for both domestic and
international shipments.

The people I spoke with at the American Civil Liberties Union did not have
detailed information on whether common carriers like DHL, Federal Express and
UPS have free rein to determine which materials and customers they
will deal with and which they will reject. I was told quite clearly, however,
that there are no First Amendment guarantees that extend to private companies
such as express package carriers.

Federal Express could make hay off being a Botticelli-friendly carrier. It would be a
great TV commercial. The opening shot features a nice middle-aged woman looking appreciatively at a life-size reproduction of
Michaelangelo's "David." She turns and faces the camera. "I tried to send
this poster home from Europe to my son who's studying Renaissance art, but DHL
and UPS ripped open my parcel and said it was pornographic. If it weren't for Federal Express, I would have missed his birthday entirely!" Cut to a shot of a Federal Express plane
flying into the sunset, then her son unrolling the poster and beaming
appreciatively, while a voice-over announces, "Federal Express: We take care
of the shipping and leave questions of taste up to you."

By David Steinberg

David Steinberg writes frequently about the culture and politics of sex. Readers who want to receive his writing regularly can send their names and e-mail addresses to him at

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