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Brandeis Takes a Stab at Art Censorship

Israeli–Palestinian art is the subject of more controversy this week, this time at Brandeis University. As an article in today’s Boston Globe (membership required) explains, Brandeis pulled an exhibit by Israeli student Lior Halperin, who arranged for Palestinian teenagers to paint images that would bring the Palestinian point of view to the Brandeis campus. The exhibit, according to the Globe article, featured such scenes as a girl with pigtails lying in a pool of blood and a young amputee in a Palestinian tent city. The exhibit was scheduled to run in the Brandeis library for two weeks, but was removed after only four days because some students had complained that the depictions were one-sided.

Penn State was recently in the news for an eerily similar situation, in which student Josh Stulman’s art exhibit, Portraits of Terror, was censored because it depicted the Israeli–Palestinian conflict from an explicitly Israeli perspective. As FIRE’s Chris Perez pointed out in a blog post last week, however, Penn State eventually came around and allowed the exhibit to proceed.

But Brandeis seems to be more steadfast in its censorship. The Globe article states that Brandeis spokesperson Dennis Nealon said that “the university would consider displaying the artwork again in the fall, alongside pieces showing the Israeli point of view.”

Although Brandeis describes itself as a “non-sectarian, Jewish sponsored” university, it maintains ringing endorsements of free of speech and an openness to alternative points of view. Its mission statement speaks volumes to that effect:

In a world of challenging social and technological transformations, Brandeis remains a center of open inquiry and teaching, cherishing its independence from any doctrine or government. It strives to reflect the heterogeneity of the United States and of the world community whose ideas and concerns it shares.… By being a nonsectarian university that welcomes students, teachers, and staff of every nationality, religion, and political orientation, Brandeis renews the American heritage of cultural diversity, equal access to opportunity, and freedom of expression.

As wonderfully inclusive as this statement sounds, Lior Halperin might say that Brandeis’ supposed commitments ring hollow. And FIRE would agree—actions like this one, plus subsidiary policies that contradict the university’s bold commitments to free speech, have earned Brandeis a “red light” rating on our Spotlight. Although private schools are not bound by the First Amendment and are certainly free to cherish certain standards above others—and even to promote religious or clearly principled perspectives—it is simply wrong for them to make broad commitments to upholding free intellectual inquiry, and then revoke students’ expressive rights at will.

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