Gainesville State College (GSC) in Georgia is defending its censorship of a faculty member’s painting involving the Confederate flag. FIRE has come to the defense of art instructor Stanley Bermudez, whose painting portraying the Confederate flag in a critical context was removed by administrators from a faculty art exhibition. Disappointingly, GSC has so far not seen fit to respond to FIRE’s concerns and affirm the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty. Hopefully it will reverse course—and soon.
As we discussed in our March 8 Torch post, Bermudez’s painting, titled "Heritage?", was featured as part of GSC’s 2011 Faculty Biennial Exhibition. The painting depicts torch-wielding members of the Ku Klux Klan and a lynching superimposed onto a Confederate flag. After the painting was publicly criticized on the blog Southern Heritage Alerts, GSC President Martha T. Nesbitt removed it on January 25, without notifying or consulting either Bermudez or the director of the gallery where it was displayed. The next day, at an official reception for the exhibition, the space where "Heritage?" had previously hung for two weeks was empty, except for the personal statement Bermudez had prepared to place next to the painting.
Following the censorship, GSC faced serious criticism from FIRE and national and local media outlets for its decision. Nesbitt released statements on February 2 and February 4 defending the decision to remove "Heritage?", stating that she had to consider the "health and reputation of the institution" and that the painting’s imagery "has been perceived as aggressively hostile in other areas of the country."
FIRE wrote to President Nesbitt on March 7, asking GSC to disavow its violation of Bermudez’s First Amendment rights. FIRE’s letter also pointed out the threat GSC’s censorship poses to academic freedom, which the Supreme Court noted in Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967) is "of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned." After GSC declined to respond, FIRE repeated its concerns in a letter sent to President Nesbitt on April 13, once more asking GSC to state that it will never again silence the protected expression of the members of its community.
As Robert stated in yesterday’s press release, "Stanley Bermudez had planned a companion work exploring the more positive side of the South, but thanks to Gainesville State’s censorship of his first work, he no longer has any plans to do so. Gainesville State’s shameful actions have provided a textbook example of how disregarding the First Amendment chills expression and impoverishes our culture."
Indeed, as Bermudez had written in his personal statement for "Heritage?",
This painting represents what I feel and think of when I see the flag. However, after living in Georgia for the last 4 years and talking to several people from Georgia, I have also learned that there is a strong heritage and pride associated with the flag that has nothing to do with the KKK or racism. As is the case in many of the paintings, I do I like to show two sides of the coin. I am in the process of creating an accompanying painting of a Rebel flag that shows the image in a more positive manner. I recently attended and presented at the Southeastern College Art Conference in Richmond, Virginia and had a chance to visit the Museum of the Confederacy in that city for my research. The new flag might not change my personal views, but it will help me understand it and tolerate it a little better.
Bermudez talks more about the various factors that influenced his artwork in this YouTube interview, taped with the GSC student newspaper The Compass:
However, Bermudez tells FIRE now that "with this whole controversy I don’t think I will make the companion piece. I do not want the people that did not like the image to think that I am doing it to just make amends or to appease them." This is a loss for GSC and the art community.
That GSC’s censorship and refusal to engage FIRE and the public further has chilled speech could hardly be more apparent. We hope that GSC rights this wrong before it does any more damage to free expression. FIRE will keep Torch readers posted.