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What’s the big deal about nine middle-aged men walking the streets of suburbia in the buff?

According to the United States Postal Service, it’s erotic - and potentially offensive.

That was the lesson for the Brooklyn Academy of Music when it was forced to stuff 10,000 postcards - featuring a rear view of a line of naked men - into envelopes after a Staten Island postal employee ruled that they were offensive, The Brooklyn Papers has learned.

The BAM postcard, featuring a photo from the short film "A Heap of Trouble," was a promotion for a two-day BAMcinematek series titled "The World According to Shorts," which opens Aug. 1. (See GO Brooklyn for film series coverage.)

When Robert Grande of the Mailing Requirements department of the Staten Island Manor Road Post Office got a look at the line of naked men’s rear ends on the postcard, he deemed the mailing a "sexually oriented ad."

According to Kwang Lee of Prompt Mailers Inc., which executes mass mailings for BAM, Grande told him that "the postcard will not be acceptable based on the content." Lee had submitted the postcard to him for his evaluation on June 4.

"He suggested that the bare areas be covered with a block-out or may have to be redesigned," Lee told The Papers this week.

The definition of "Sexually Oriented Advertisem­ents," according to the U.S. Postal Service’s "Domestic Mail Manual," is, "any advertisement that depicts, in actual or simulated form, or explicitly describes, in a predominantly sexual context, human genitalia, any act of natural or unnatural sexual intercourse or any other erotic subject directly related to the foregoing."

The BAM postcard does not depict genitalia - it depicts the backsides of naked men. (The men are wearing unfashionable dark socks and shoes.) The men, who are not engaging in any type of sexual activity, are facing a row of suburban homes, and there is an overturned bicycle in the foreground. The men are clearly not models - most of them have sagging buttocks and balding heads.

So what’s a post office to do? Laugh and mail the cards, or, take steps to avoid a possible negative reaction from a few recipients of the cards.

Grande told BAM it could choose between "the old television bar, to cover up the offending part," or put the postcards in envelopes.

Jonathan Howell, curator of "The World According to Shorts" at BAM, said he was surprised the post office wanted to censor the image.

"It is more anatomically oriented than sexually oriented. It’s clearly in the service of humor, perhaps more of a British-type humor, so perhaps [Grande] didn’t get it. Maybe he’s not a fan of Monty Python."

Grande pointed out that his decision wasn’t necessarily the final word.

"They can appeal through the postal system for a higher authority if they feel I’m too restrictive," said Grande.

Despite the post office’s censorship of the postcard, BAM still mailed the postcards - all 10,000 - in envelopes. According to Howell, the envelopes do not say "sexually oriented ad" as stipulated by the post office regulation for material deemed to be "sexually oriented."

"Oh my goodness, I didn’t think of that," said Howell. "I did run this postcard by representatives of several cultural institutions and they were all OK with it and were fairly surprised anyone found it offensive."

Howell explained that the photo was from a short film by Steve Sullivan, appropriately titled "A Heap of Trouble."

"It’s about nine naked men walking down the road, and they’re singing, ’Nine naked men walking down the road would cause a heap of trouble for everyone concerned.’ It’s about the middle class reaction to nudity - which is panic," he said.

Howell added the film is a comedy, and that he didn’t think the photo would get such a reaction from either the postal inspectors or people who received it.

"[’A Heap of Trouble’] got one of the most positive audience responses when I saw it in France in February at Clermont-Ferrand’s Festival du Court Metrage," said Howell. "The audience was laughing a lot, to put it mildly."

BAM printed 40,000 of the postcards through Manhattan-based GO Card, which distributes about 30,000 of the them in restaurants and other public areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn with 10,000 sent through the mail, according to Howell.

"We chose this image because it’s eye catching," said Howell. "And in the context of a GO Card, that’s what we need because it’s on display with several other GO Cards."

But what would happen if an individual picked up the postcard from a GO Card stand and mailed it? Nothing, explained Grande of the post office. If an individual mails a postcard to another individual, it’s up to the recipient to complain to the post office. After an investigation by the post office’s inspection department, the individual who mailed the card could be charged with violating the regulations governing sexually oriented advertisements.

BAM, on the other hand, was mailing 10,000 postcards and was applying for the bulk-mail discount, so it was subject to the post office’s discretion prior to mailing them.

But "if they’re only putting it in one envelope, they would need marking on it," explained Grande, referring to the "sexually oriented ad" phrase.

"They wanted a reduced rate, and that needs to be approved," said Grande. "If it’s sent first class, we really can’t look at it. We’re not allowed. We only see the address side. We don’t see the other side. But if [the recipient of that card] comes up and says, ’I feel this is offensive,’ we have to take action."

As for the penalty that BAM, or an individual, who mails the card without an envelope with marking would suffer, it’s out of the hands of the Postal Service.

"If it violates the Postal Code that would go under the law, and the police would be involved. I wouldn’t be," explained Grande.

If BAM had chosen not to show the postcard to Grande, and forego the bulk-mail rate, the cards could have gone unnoticed, said Grande, adding, "If [the mailing] was large volume and [a postal employee] happened to look at them, they might question it and send it to a postal inspector for clarification.

"Since they sent it to us before they mailed it," Grande said, "they must have felt in their hearts that there was something wrong with it. With bulk mail, we think about the few people who will have objections."
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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