New Chancellor of Georgia System Must Prioritize Free Speech

By on August 23, 2011

Throughout much of the year, FIRE has been fighting for the free speech rights of art instructor Stanley Bermudez at Gainesville State College (GSC) in Georgia. Bermudez, in case Torch readers have forgotten, painted a provocative painting titled "Heritage?" for display at a GSC faculty art exhibition. The painting criticized the heritage of the Confederate flag by superimposing images of lynchings and Ku Klux Klan members on its background. However, when critics of the painting complained to GSC President Martha Nesbitt about the painting’s content, she unilaterally removed it from the exhibition, leaving only Bermudez’s personal statement about his relationship with the flag available for viewing. You can learn all about this case on our case page, and check out this video interview with Bermudez below:

Nesbitt has only made two brief public comments (that I know of) about this incident, justifying the censorship in part by arguing that the painting "focused solely on the image that has been perceived as aggressively hostile in other areas of the country." She also stated that she "personally welcome[s] constructive ideas about how we might move forward and use this experience to foster civil discourse on the issues raised."

This latter statement I can only conclude is void of any substance, for while the painting—and her censorship of it—did provoke much "civil discourse," Nesbitt doesn’t seem to have been all that interested in partaking herself. Certainly, she couldn’t be bothered to address the issues raised by her censorship and the resulting damage to free speech and academic freedom, having chosen not to answer our two letters to her.

FIRE has since appealed to Hank M. Huckaby, the new Chancellor of the University System of Georgia (USG), which includes GSC. We’ve asked Chancellor Huckaby to step in and make sure that the GSC community knows no one will be censored or punished for protected expression. The beginning of a new administration presents a terrific opportunity to reaffirm fundamental principles of higher education—especially free speech.

Disappointingly, FIRE is still waiting for a response from Chancellor Huckaby to our letter. We wish him well in his new and important position, but he should not think it appropriate to brush off the abuses of free speech that have taken place at GSC (and who can forget the infamous case of Hayden Barnes at Valdosta State University, also part of the USG?). Indeed, in his position of influence, overseeing 35 two- and four-year institutions, letting GSC continue to ignore its violation of free speech would set a dangerous example for its peer institutions.

Schools: Gainesville State College Cases: Gainesville State College: President Censors Faculty Art Critical of Confederate Heritage