Threats and Intimidation

Becky O’Malley
Friday June 25, 2004

A couple of weeks ago metropolitan papers carried a story about a North Beach incident in which a gallery owner reported that she had been spat on (punched in the face in some accounts) because her shop window displayed a painting derived from photographs, which depicts in graphic comic-book style the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military. The painter was a fairly well-known Berkeley figure, and we intended to report on the incident or perhaps comment on it in this space, but we never got around to it. 

Boy, are we glad we didn’t! If you believe the bloggers, and that’s never completely wise, a stew of controversy about what actually happened and why has been brewing ever since. Of course, the usual assortment of Internet foulmouths have denounced the painter for anti-American sentiments, which prompts the usual suspects, us among them, to defend his right to express his views, and to support his depiction of torture as being revolting. 

But some bloggers point to the gallery owner’s previous role in controversial lawsuits, and hint strongly that something is not right about the reported occurrence. A self-described witness claims that the artist tried to make television reporters shut off their cameras at a hastily organized supportive rally in front of the store. The word “hoax” has appeared on some sites, not all of them of the hyper-patriotic persuasion. We have no way of knowing what’s true and what’s false, since there were no witnesses to whatever happened. 

What we do know is that the painter has chosen an unfortunate way of trying to protect himself from the consequences of having his work displayed as it was. The Daily Planet, which had never reported on the incident or commented on it in any way, received this “URGENT MESSAGE TO THE PUBLISHER” from him this week: 

“I have an urgent legal concern that my address not appear on the web. I find that I can locate my address on the Planet site at [web link omitted]. Please act quickly to remove my address from your website so that it will not appear in search engine results pages. If necessary I will seek legal assistance to get this done.” 

The web link he included didn’t work, but by googling his name we found that the Planet, under its previous ownership, had twice put listings of shows at his Berkeley gallery in its arts calendar. The search also turned up many other references to him, and quite a few mentions of his gallery’s address in various contexts. Because of technical problems having to do with the change in ownership, we don’t really know how to remove old data from the archives that we inherited, and we told him that. We also told him that we weren’t impressed by his threat of getting “legal assistance,” based on our knowledge of the First Amendment. 

Big mistake. He seems to have found himself a lawyer who (a) disagrees with our legal analysis and (b) is willing to make extra-legal personal threats in case his analysis is wrong. We got an e-mail letter from a San Francisco lawyer who claims to represent him, saying in part that the painter “has received threats against himself and his family and, for that reason, wants to minimize the availability of information as to his whereabouts to those who might do harm to him or his family.” The letter asks us to “delete any references to him or links to his location” and goes on to say that “should he receive any threats, or should any harm come to him or his family, and the source of such misconduct be traced back to you, we shall not hesitate to bring all legal action, civil and criminal, that the law would permit against the Daily Planet and individuals there who did not cooperate in this request.” 

Whew! Heavvvy! Based on our knowledge of torts law, we’re pretty sure that leaving a two-year-old gallery listing in the archives of the old Planet’s arts calendar won’t expose us to much in the way of legal sanctions. But wait, there’s more. The lawyer goes on: “...alternatively, we can research your home addresses and publish them so that anyone who does not like what you are doing can know where to find you and your family. How does that sound?” 

That sounds like a personal threat to me, and it’s disgraceful. It’s been 25 years since I passed the ethics part of the State Bar exam, but I bet that kind of personal threat is still against the rules. The artist is doing his credibility no good by hiring someone who writes letters like that. Needless to say, the Planet would be wise never to publish the painter’s name (Guy Colwell) or list his local gallery again, just to be on the safe side. (Small sacrifice. I’ve never liked his work anyway, politics aside.) 

But the public does need to be protected from the lawyer, whose name is David M. Zeff, and who’s listed in the San Francisco directory. I hope the State Bar takes notice of this behavior, and at least raps his knuckles for such inappropriate bullying.  


—Becky O’Malley