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Cleveland State University settles with artist for $50,000 over censorship

Cleveland State University settled a lawsuit this week with sculptor Billie Lawless. Readers of FIRE’s blog may remember that last fall, the university censored Lawless’s sculpture The Politician: A Toy, which has been on campus since 2008.

The sculpture has always featured provocative phrases, but when CSU censored the most recent update — ”BUILD A WALL OF PUSSIE” — with a repurposed homecoming banner, Lawless sued. His contract with the university, which had recently been extended through 2020, stipulated that the university could not “modify, disassemble or demolish” the piece.

Lawless and the university have now agreed to a settlement wherein the artist will receive $50,000, and remove the piece from campus by mid-summer. According to a joint statement regarding the settlement, “The parties have worked together to amicably resolve their recent dispute.”

FIRE is disappointed that this issue had to be litigated at all — especially because Cleveland State University is a green light institution in FIRE’s Spotlight database. That designation means that, as written, none of CSU’s policies infringe on student or faculty speech rights. CSU’s faculty has also endorsed the Chicago Statement, which signals its commitment to fostering a climate supportive of free expression.

Nevertheless, we’re pleased that the settlement was reached amicably, and we hope that other institutions view this as a warning about the potential financial risks incurred by censorship. FIRE has written extensively on art censorship in the past and we will continue to follow the issue closely.

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