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Shibley on Wellesley’s Reaction to ‘Sleepwalker’

By February 11, 2014

Wellesley College students have had mixed responses to “Sleepwalker,” a statue of a man in briefs who appears to be stumbling along the side of a road through campus, arms outstretched and eyes closed. While some students posed playfully with the statue for pictures, a Change.org petition to have the statue moved to an indoor space garnered over 900 signatures. FIRE’s Robert Shibley shared his take on the situation in The Daily Caller last Friday.

Among the main objections to sculptor Tony Matelli’s piece is that the statue might serve as a “trigger” for students who had been sexually assaulted—that is, the statue might provoke unwanted flashbacks and emotional trauma for some viewers. In his article, Shibley notes the trend of authors and artists providing a “trigger warning” so that audience members can avoid such a response if they so choose. But providing this sort of “heads-up”—whether it’s effected through a warning or by keeping art indoors—should remain optional. Shibley writes:

Authors of controversial pieces are certainly free to do their best to warn people away if they wish to avoid causing emotional discomfort. But demanding that others conform to this newly minted norm is a prescription for censorship of the most transparent kind. As the Supreme Court wrote in Terminiello v. Chicago (1949):

[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.

So far, Wellesley administrators have declined to move the statue as requested.

Check out the rest of Shibley’s piece in The Daily Caller.

Schools: Wellesley College