KOKOMO, Ind., Dec. 20, 2018 — The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and PEN America are calling on Indiana University Kokomo to commit to respect freedom of expression after it censored two students’ sculptures, one of which resembles female genitalia. The organizations’ continuing concerns stem from an administrator’s suggestion that the art may once again be censored based on complaints from the community.
“When complainers become curators, student expression is sacrificed to the most sensitive members of the community,” said FIRE’s Sarah McLaughlin, senior program officer and author of a 2018 FIRE report on campus art censorship. “Freedom of speech doesn’t exist to protect only expression that everyone agrees with — it protects unpopular, raw, or uncomfortable expression that’s too often threatened by censorship.”
The students’ sculptures were censored by IUK for three months, during which time FIRE and PEN America first wrote to the university on Oct. 22. The university restored the art to its original location later that month.
Artist and IUK senior Mary Ade told the local newspaper that the art resulted from dealing with a past sexual assault and served as a way for her to heal.
“That experience really changed my relationship with my body,” Ade told the Kokomo Perspective. “So a lot of the work I’ve done, and this sculpture specifically, is about coming to terms with that after sexual trauma and that sort of thing. It really is deeply personal to me, and it matters to me. And I think it should matter to other people too because I know I’m not the only one who has gone through that experience.”
In 2017, professor Gregory Steel contacted the university to request placement of several concrete pads for his students’ sculptures. The pads and sculptures were installed a year later. After about a week on display, the university removed the student sculptures Steel had chosen for display and told Steel that they had received complaints about the art.
FIRE has requested through an open records request to see the complaints, but the scant records produced by the university contained no trace of any complaints at all.
The university provided conflicting excuses for censoring the art, including a claim that the professor didn’t go through the right approval process, contradicting Steel’s report that he had been warned the administration had received “complaints from the community.” However, prior to the sculptures’ restoration, an administrator warned that in an effort to be a “good neighbor,” IUK may reconsider the art’s placement on campus based on “concerns from the community.”
“We’re relieved that the university restored the art, but we can’t rest easy knowing that the university failed to make real assurances that they’ll protect student expression over alleged community complaints,” McLaughlin said. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But freedom of expression is not.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org