New FIRE Video ‘Portraits of Terror’ Takes on Censorship of Art Examining Palestinian Terrorism

By on September 27, 2010

Today FIRE unveils the second video in our series examining censorship of hot-button issues on college campuses. Our new video, Portraits of Terror, tells the story of artist Joshua Stulman, whose exhibit of the same name was censored at Penn State University in 2006 by two professors who claimed that the art violated Penn State’s policy against "hate speech."

What was the focus of the exhibit, you might wonder?

The exhibit "Portraits of Terror," the entirety of which may be seen here, explores the promotion of terrorism and anti-Semitism in the Palestinian territories. Stulman, who is Jewish, focuses on the origins of anti-Israeli terrorism, and in a previous project had focused on the "appropriation" of Nazi imagery by Hamas and Hezbollah. For this, according to a lawsuit later filed by Stulman against Penn State University and the two professors who censored him, he was called into a meeting with his art professor, Robert Yarber, where he was told that he was a racist, that his art was racist, that it promoted Islamophobia, and that he "was calling all Arabs murderers and deliberately misleading uninformed university students to promote the idea that all Arabs are terrorists." Perhaps in order to highlight the fierce political disagreement between Yarber and Stulman, Stulman’s complaint goes on to allege that Yarber also said that "Israel is a terrorist state" and that Israel had "no right to exist." Indeed, the Daily Collegian, Penn State’s student newspaper, reported at the time that the university had justified canceling the exhibit by claiming that it "did not promote cultural diversity" or "opportunities for democratic dialogue," and that another professor claimed it "did not mesh with the university’s educational mission."

While Penn State President Graham Spanier very publicly overturned this decision, declaring "[t]hat exhibit is going to go up," Stulman’s exhibit was never actually presented at Penn State. A later exhibition planned at Gratz College in Philadelphia was also canceled for fear of a violent response.

As I point out in the video, this was not the first timenor is it likely to be the last timea student faced censorship and/or punishment for speech critical of radical Islam or Islamic terrorism. Take, for example, the case at San Francisco State University in 2007, where members of the College Republicans who stomped on hand-drawn Hamas and Hezbollah flags during an anti-terrorism protest were brought up on charges of "incivility" by the campus judiciary. When San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders called SFSU to ask how it could be possible to punish the students when the Supreme Court has held that even burning an American flag is protected expression under the First Amendment, university spokesperson Ellen Griffin responded, "I don’t believe the complaint is about the desecration of the flag. I believe that the complaint is the desecration of Allah." This response has always struck me as remarkable, as it is the first time I can remember that a public university official tried to explain away a violation of the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment by violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The club ultimately prevailed in the campus judiciary and in a First Amendment lawsuit against the university.

Meanwhile, that same year at Tufts University, a campus newspaper was punished for "harassment" for printing unflattering but verifiable facts about Islam during the school’s "Islamic Awareness Week." For example, the paper’s piece pointed out that author Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding after writing The Satanic Verses and that the countries that punish homosexuality by death are all Islamic theocracies, and merely repeated unflattering quotes from the Koran. Tufts’ refusal to overturn this finding led to Tufts’ inclusion on FIRE’s "Red Alert" list of the worst campuses in America for free speech.

Just last year, Yale University intervened to prevent the publication of the infamous Danish Mohammed cartoons in a book specifically about those cartoons. The book, entitled The Cartoons That Shook the World, was slated to be published by Yale University Press until the university itself intervened. After submitting the cartoons out of context to a group of anonymous consultants, Yale University decided to remove not only the cartoons but any image of Mohammed from the book. This decision was made despite the fact that author Jytte Klausen had agreed to publish her book through Yale University Press with the explicit understanding that her book about the cartoons had to include the cartoons that were being discussed.

Klausen characterized herself as "stunned" following Yale’s decision, and she wasn’t alone. A storm of criticism followed from all corners: Yale was blasted in an open letter signed by FIRE, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Association of University Professors, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Middle East Studies Association, and others. The letter pointed out that "the failure to stand up for free expression emboldens those who would attack and undermine it." Yet, Yale University defends its decision in this case to this day.

Stulman’s case provides another compelling example of how students can run afoul of campus censors for trying to take on highly divisive issues in the one place that is supposed to enthusiastically welcome important debates: our colleges and universities. FIRE’s video may also generate some controversy of its own, as it features a character Stulman came up with to mock Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, a Palestinian-Arab nationalist who worked with Hitler during World War II. While taking on any issue relating to the founding of Israel can be risky, Stulman’s decision to dub the cartoon character Moo-Ham-Mud could easily result in his being punished or otherwise silenced if he were still on campus.

Two weeks ago, when we premièred a rough cut of the video to a small audience in L.A., one attendee was bothered by the controversial nature of the subject matter. She pointed to our previous videos, like the one covering the student-employee in Indiana who was found guilty of racial harassment for doing nothing more than publicly reading a book, the video about the student who was kicked out of school for protesting a parking garage with a Facebook collage, our videos about the University of Delaware case, or the shocking treatment of Emily Brooker. I explained to her that while censorship on campus often comes in the most absurd forms, people must understand that it also chills and directly silences dissenting opinions on those issues that we most desperately need to be talking about.

As a free speech organization, FIRE needs to take on controversies head-on, as we did in our first video in this series, "Empty Holsters," which discussed the censorship of gun-related speech. Here we saw an opportunity to open up discussion on a hot topic that shamefully has been repressed on a number of campuses, and to show our support for artistic freedom. While we recognize the risk that critics angered by this video might willfully misinterpret the identity of the caricature Moo-Ham-Mud as being a "new Mohammed cartoon," we must not let our advocacy of free speech and artistic expression be dampened by fear of the response.

Schools: Pennsylvania State University – University Park Cases: Pennsylvania State University – University Park: Student Sues for Art Censorship