One of the defining characteristics of art is its ability to affect people in staggeringly different ways. Some might find a painting inspirational; others might find it poignant; still others might find it offensive.
As the Supreme Court explained in 1971 in Cohen vs. California, “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” This is particularly true when an artist attempts to push boundaries. A society dedicated to freedom of expression ought to welcome such work and the potential for thoughtful provocation that it offers.
Where better to cultivate artistic freedom than at the university? College students should have the opportunity to develop and test their beliefs about a wide range of issues, including those that spark controversy. However, as over a decade of defending free speech rights in higher education has taught me, the modern college campus is often surprisingly hostile toward expression that might cause offense. In fact, a 2010 survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that only 16.7 percent of professors and 30.3 percent of college seniors strongly agree that “it is safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.”
As Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol or Pablo Picasso could have told you, art is not always popular or free from controversy. In discussing the application of the First Amendment to a controversial painting displayed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, noted legal scholar and appellate court judge Richard Posner stressed that “the visual arts have (long) been a medium of political and social commentary” and that artists have the right to integrate potentially offensive messages into their pieces. But on campus these days, this is a risky endeavor. The right to free artistic expression tends to lose when it collides with a newer (and usually implicit) expectation: that students have the right “not to be offended.” Consider the following examples.
The University of Kansas Medical Center recently triggered accusations of artistic censorship when it suspended a 20-year program that hosted various art exhibitions. The latest show, Tom Gregg’s Unsold, featured paintings that included hand grenades, bullets, and pistols. On July 30, 2013, KUMC shut down the show before schedule and discontinued the entire program, claiming that budget issues necessitated this decision. However, former KUMC library curator Melissa Rountree asserted that the administration told her to remove the paintings because they did not align with the school’s core mission.
Indeed, administrators often rely upon flimsy arguments to justify censorship. The president of Gainesville State College in Georgia scrambled to rationalize her decision to remove a GSC instructor’s painting from a faculty art exhibition in January of 2011. Stanley Bermudez’s piece superimposed images of a lynching and Ku Klux Klansmen bearing torches on a Confederate flag. After the Southern Heritage Alert blog blasted the art as insulting to the memories of Confederate soldiers, President Martha Nesbitt pulled the painting, arguing that “the negative results” of displaying it “would outweigh the positive ones.”
Two incidents from 2006 further demonstrate higher education’s seeming antipathy towards artistic expression that explores controversial topics. In May of 2006 at Brandeis University, Israeli student Lior Halperin asked Palestinian teenagers to create paintings that captured the plight of their youth. The startling images included cowering children and bombs dropping from planes. Four days into the two-week exhibition, Brandeis pulled the paintings in response to student protests about the content. One administrator invoked a rationale similar to the one used by GSC and defended the censorship by stating that such expression “can do more harm than good” if “students are reacting in a strong and negative way” to it.
That same year, Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) student Joshua Stulman attempted to offer another perspective on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in an art exhibit entitled “Portraits of Terror.” This series of paintings, which explored Islamic terrorism in Palestinian territories, “was created to promote dialogue on the issue of terrorism.” Penn State canceled the exhibit before it even debuted because it “did not promote cultural diversity” or “opportunities for democratic dialogue,” and therefore clashed with the school’s “Statement on Nondiscrimination and Harassment” and “Zero Tolerance Policy for Hate.” One professor allegedly asserted that Arab students on campus had been victimized by the artwork, regardless of Stulman’s intentions. Although the university’s president eventually overturned the decision, “Portraits of Terror” was never presented at Penn State.
In all of these situations, there is one constant: The expressive rights of artists were deemed inferior to others’ desire to avoid having their sensibilities challenged. If merely controversial expression can lead to such censorship, it is no surprise that artistic satire and parody are particularly vulnerable to attack on campus.
In April of 2005, Chris Lee, a student at Washington State University, discovered this when WSU launched a bizarre attack against his bawdy, irreverent comedy “Passion of the Musical.” Lee’s stated goal for the play, which satirized a vast array of people and beliefs, was “to show people we’re not that different, we all have issues that can be made fun of.” WSU administrators objected so strongly to the production that they trained approximately 40 students to disrupt it, using university funds to purchase their tickets. The hecklers, who threatened the cast members with violence and repeatedly yelled, “I am offended,” managed to shut down the performance.
As I discuss in my book, “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” the desire to prevent “offense” that arose at colleges during the 1980s is still alive and well — and it continues to cloak the desire to silence one’s opponents with the seemingly noble goal of ensuring that everyone is comfortable. And people are generally more comfortable with popular ideas that don’t “rock the boat.” There is certainly a place for safe, popular art, whether it is the paintings of Thomas Kinkade or the music of Taylor Swift. But there is also tremendous value in art that forces us to challenge our beliefs. Do we want to live in a world where artists are not allowed to stray beyond the confines of comfort, and where unusual expression is quickly suppressed?
Unfortunately, this is the attitude that today’s college students are learning to accept. In July, the First Amendment Center released its annual “State of the First Amendment” survey. The study found that the youngest respondents were by far the least supportive of First Amendment protections. A startling 47 percent of those aged 18-30 felt the First Amendment “goes too far” in the rights it guarantees — approximately double the number of older respondents (24 percent of those aged 40-60 and 23 percent of those over 60). Our college students appear to believe the message campuses are sending, that speech should be restricted, and are taking that outlook with them when they leave campus. These implications for freedom of speech in all forms, from the spoken word to the artist’s canvas, are grim. If we want artists — both on campus and off — to continue to be able to push boundaries, we can’t expect them to walk on eggshells.
Greg Lukianoff is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization whose mission of protecting campus rights concentrates on freedom of speech and expression; religious liberty and freedom of association; freedom of conscience; and due process and legal equality. Lukianoff is the author of “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate” (Encounter Books, 2012).