FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship have sent a joint letter to Nebraska’s Doane University objecting to its investigation and suspension of a faculty librarian who curated a photo display of the history of social events at the school, which included photos from university archives showing Doane students from the 1920s who appeared to be wearing blackface.
In late April, Doane placed library director Melissa Gomis on mandatory leave after a student complained about an exhibit on “Parties of the Past,” inspired by the ongoing national debate surrounding offensive Halloween and party costumes, as well as a national effort to confront the history of blackface in universities’ yearbooks. The display, which went up in March, included two photos of students at a 1926 Doane masquerade party who appeared to be wearing blackface.
Gomis has since been reinstated, but not before Doane conducted an investigation into whether her use of the photos violated the university’s policy on “discriminatory harassment.”
In public statements, Doane’s administration faulted the display for lacking “appropriate educational context.” While administrators are certainly free — as are students and other faculty members — to criticize the manner of an exhibit and the exhibit itself, subjective evaluations about whether an exhibit is adequately contextualized cannot justify curtailing a curator’s right to frame and present it.
FIRE and NCAC wrote to Doane President Jacque Carter last week to remind him that Doane makes strong academic freedom promises, and that these kinds of investigations and mandated warnings — tantamount to compelled speech — violate those promises.
Faculty at institutions that, like Doane, promise academic freedom, must be free to make a variety of pedagogical choices, including how to discuss, view, or display certain material, even when that material may shock or offend others. (While Doane is a private university not bound by the First Amendment, private institutions that make such promises are contractually and morally bound to uphold them.) As we note in our letter, “Courts have found that these kinds of pedagogical choices are protected under the tenets of academic freedom and do not rise to the level of discriminatory harassment.”
We also reminded Doane that its promises of free expression and academic freedom aren’t just aspirational; they’re a requirement of its accreditation. Doane University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, whose standards require that accredited institutions be “committed to freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.”
Librarians, we explain, play a crucial role in that pursuit:
Librarians facilitate the information-gathering and research functions of the university’s constituents, and often participate in the pursuits of academia themselves, including through teaching, research, and publication. These roles necessarily require freedom from institutional censorship in order to preserve the library’s central function within the university.
To that end, NCAC has developed material on best practices to “help curators meet the challenges of presenting sensitive materials” in these kinds of situations, while also guarding free expression:
NCAC recognizes that, in our polarized times, the careful contextualization of exhibitions is important, especially where the mission of the institution is to educate. But decisions about how to frame and contextualize an exhibition should be left to the curator or organizer of the exhibition. To guide curators, librarians and administrators, NCAC has produced a set of guidelines, Smart Tactics: Curating Difficult Content, which includes a handbook to help curators meet the challenges of presenting sensitive materials.
FIRE and NCAC have asked Doane to rescind any punishment related to this matter and clarify its commitment to academic and expressive freedom.
We will update you when it does.