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Kennesaw State Releases Self-Contradictory Statement on Art Installation Controversy

By March 7, 2014

Earlier this week, I reported on Kennesaw State University’s removal and conditional offer to reinstall Ruth Stanford’s project for KSU’s new Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art depicting the history of writer Corra Harris’ homestead, which was gifted to the university in 2009. KSU administrators deemed the installation—which included excerpts from a magazine article by Harris in which she offers a rationalization of lynching—not “celebratory” enough for the museum’s grand opening, but KSU President Daniel Papp later stated that he was motivated by a concern that the text would offend African-Americans. As I noted on Wednesday, these concerns don’t justify this public school’s censorship of the installation on the basis of its content.

Later on Wednesday, KSU posted a statement to its website attempting once again to explain its decision to remove the exhibit. The statement plainly acknowledges that KSU administrators considered the subject matter of the installation:

The exhibit does not exist in a vacuum; it is connected to a sensitive controversy in Kennesaw State’s recent past, which remains extremely raw for many University constituents.

The KSU administration further stated that “the display will be more appropriate and meaningful when both the on-campus and off-campus communities will not be surprised by revisiting this issue and can be proactively engaged in its scheduling and the development of related programming.” But visitors to a museum—particularly one at a public institution of higher education—should not be surprised to encounter an honest reflection of history, even when that history involves advocacy of ideas that are widely rejected today. Besides that, the display might be more meaningful precisely because it relates to a recent controversy, one that “remains extremely raw.” Suggesting that observers are not capable of evaluating the art on its own terms and that it must be specially packaged by the college before viewing insults the audience KSU claims to protect.

The content of the installation was pretty clearly the reason for its removal—after all, every justification offered made reference to the work’s subject matter. Nevertheless, KSU’s latest statement says:

The administration’s action was in no way a statement about the art or the subject matter with which it deals, nor was it intended to limit freedom of expression of the artist.

But whether KSU officials meant to convey personal objections to the speech is irrelevant. The installation was removed because of its content, specifically because of the viewpoint conveyed by Harris’ writing, as it was incorporated into the work. If schools could excuse their decisions to silence certain expression by simply claiming that content-based decisions to censor weren’t meant as “a statement about” the content, all expression would be subject to the whims of administrators, leaving nothing left of free speech rights on university campuses.

KSU should reinstall the work at Stanford’s request and as Stanford intended the installation to be displayed. KSU must also recognize that silencing artists based on the content of their work does not comport with its legal and moral obligations to uphold freedom of expression on its campus.