By Tim Cushing at Techdirt
Last December, an artistic piece appeared on the University of Iowa (UI) campus that rubbed a whole lot of people the wrong way. It resembled a hooded KKK member and was constructed from newspapers containing stories on racial violence. UI, being a typical university, removed and condemned the artwork, apparently unable to see anything past the shape of the object — like the subtext or even what its own condemnation meant in this context. (It was this effigy that prompted a completely ridiculous/trollicious response at Thought Catalog — one that compared free speech to Nazism.)
The school went on to soothe its thin skin by inviting its students — especially those with equally thin skin/inability to contextualize artistic statements — to come up with more ideas for repressing further free speech.
Emails obtained Wednesday by The Gazette reveal UI administrators sent that draft to student leaders who had expressed indignation over the effigy, asking for “suggestions.” The students sent a “response draft” with a handful of changes and stronger language.
UI Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin said in internal emails that “some of what they have written, I think, is out of the question.”
The students, for example, suggested [President Sally] Mason call the statue a “portrayal of hate” and say “this action of an individual at an educational institution at the pedestal of the Pentacrest was not and will never be tolerated.”
They also suggested Mason call for an investigation.
Fortunately, most of the suggestions were never implemented. But the university still forced the artist — a visiting professor who was on hand during the controversial effigy’s very brief appearance on campus to answer questions and explain his motivations — to remove it from the campus’ informal free speech area, called the “Pentacrest.”
The better news is that another local college — Kirkwood University — has found a home for Professor Serhat Tanyolacar’s artwork.
Titled, “Fear of Art: Free Speech, Controversy and Public Space,” the forum attracted about 150 Kirkwood faculty, students and community members — who posed dozens of questions after a 30-minute opening statement from Tanyolacar.
UI, meanwhile, maintains that it didn’t remove the effigy because it was supposedly offensive, butbecause Tanyolacar didn’t ask its permission before exercising his First Amendment rights. The administration also claims that if it had been asked, it would have granted its permission. This, of course, can’t be proven after the fact, so it’s a safe thing to say, even if most people don’t believe a word of it.
What the university has done with its swift removal of protected expression in response to a heckler’s veto is provide the student body with a blueprint for further attacks on free speech.FIRE’s (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) Ari Cohn phrases it this way:
@uiowa has turned its students into such anti-#freespeech goblins that they are calling police to report suspected unregistered protests.
University of Iowa police Lt. Joe Lang, who was on scene at the demonstration, said the police were called to the event because someone saw the demonstration and decided to report it.
“We’re out here to make sure they went through the proper channels to get permission for this demonstration,” he said “We’re protecting the vested interest of the university; we just want to avoid a situation similar to what happened a few months ago.”
The “demonstration?” A public “free speech wall” where any student could write down anything he or she wanted to, provided — with permission from the university — by the school chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty. But someone (or someones) on campus would rather shut down free speech — using law enforcement, no less — than deal with the possibility that someone might be offended.
This is the culture that is indulged by the University of Iowa. It claims (like many other schools that say one thing and do another) to be a supporter of free expression, but its previous actions show nearly no heckler will be denied his or her veto power. The school has decided — through its statements and actions — that free speech can only be defended if it’s popular speech. UI’s president, Sally Mason, has already gone so far as to apologize to students who felt “terrorized” by Tanyolacar’s “unauthorized” artwork. In complete seriousness, she also claimed to support free speech while simultaneously asserting that the UI campus was no place for “divisive or insensitive displays.”
The censoring of Tanyolacar’s artwork has already produced a chilling effect on free expression, as is evidenced by the summoning of police to a free speech “demonstration.” The campus cops are already geared up to “prevent” students from being “terrorized” by protected speech. And now a certain subset of students has been given more power than they can responsibly handle. It’s clear which “side” of free speech the college has chosen to throw its weight behind: the side that limits, rather than encourages, an open exchange of ideas.