GAINESVILLE, Ga., April 14, 2011—Gainesville State College (GSC) in Georgia is defending its censorship of a faculty member’s painting involving the Confederate flag. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (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.
“It’s hard to think of a more fundamental lesson in the First Amendment than this one, which makes it all the more disappointing that Gainesville State has failed it so dramatically,” said Adam Kissel, Vice President of Programs at FIRE. “Gainesville State could have set an example by standing up for Bermudez in the face of controversy. Instead, it has become a cautionary tale of the fallout that ensues when schools ignore the First Amendment.”
The painting, titled “Heritage?”, was featured as part of GSC’s 2011 Faculty Biennial Exhibition. It 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.
“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,” Robert Shibley, Senior Vice President at FIRE, said. “Gainesville State’s shameful actions have provided a textbook example of how disregarding the First Amendment chills expression and impoverishes our culture.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.