Table of Contents
FIRE, NCAC object after State College of Florida censors art exhibit
This year, the arts and education organization Embracing Our Differences chose “Embracing Kindness” as the theme for its 20th annual international juried art exhibition. But administrators at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota are reportedly embracing censorship, instead — prompting event organizers to pull the exhibition from the Bradenton campus after SCF demanded EOD remove pieces displaying the words “diversity,” “inclusion,” “justice,” “equality,” and “reproductive rights.”
Let’s take a look at these pieces — identified as “Good Trouble,” “Being Different Gives the World Color,” and “Body & Voice”:
“Good Trouble” depicts a Black child wearing a shirt embossed with the words “justice” and “equality” and with a Ukrainian flag patched onto the sleeve. The child is surrounded by racial justice imagery, including a newspaper article about the Little Rock Nine, the letters “BLM,” a sign demanding an end to police brutality, and an image of activist John Lewis. Also surrounding the child is a pride flag and the phrase “The American Dream” written in Spanish.
“Being Different Gives The World Color” depicts seven different masks used for cultural celebrations, performances, and theatrical plays. The issue with this piece was the attached quote giving an individual perspective on diversity and inclusion, “Diversity and inclusion are like the needle and thread that stitch together the harmonious fabric of peace for humankind.”
“Body & Voice” portrays a group of distraught-looking pregnant women asking a group of men “Do We Not Have A Voice About Our Own Body?” The artist’s statement notes that the piece aims to bring attention to reproductive rights.
The troubling request to remove these pieces came shortly after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who’s been attempting to enforce the state’s “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” ban on certain discussions of race and gender in public classrooms — spoke at a Jan. 31 press conference at SCF, where he announced funding cuts to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in the state’s university and college system.
FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote SCF Bradenton a joint letter on Feb. 23 explaining that in order to serve and educate its students, it must “be able to stand up to political pressure rather than shield students from expression about controversial topics.”
One’s feeling of offense or discomfort towards a piece of art shouldn’t affect another’s opportunity to view and respond to the same piece.
SCF Bradenton Associate Vice President of Communications Jamie Smith said the school requested removal of the three pieces because they “may have been found offensive and not embraced.” Smith also cited safety and security concerns, such as recent vandalism of an EOD display at another venue, and claimed SCF Bradenton “took into consideration the values of the college[.]” EOD commendably refused to submit to this act of censorship — citing its mission of celebrating diversity — and withdrew the exhibition. It’s working on finding a new venue.
“One man’s vulgarity”: Art censorship on American campuses
This report tells of some of the controversies that FIRE has highlighted or intervened in over the nearly two decades we have spent fighting for freedom of speech on campuses.
In their letter, FIRE and NCAC explained that SCF Bradenton is a public campus bound by the First Amendment and “may not censor campus expression — including art — simply because some dislike the artistic message” or find it offensive. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If viewers find any of the pieces in the EOD exhibition offensive or upsetting, they can simply — as the Supreme Court said in Cohen v. California — “avert their eyes.” But one’s feeling of offense or discomfort towards a piece of art shouldn’t affect another’s opportunity to view and respond to the same piece.
As our joint letter also noted, the arts are integral to a “robust, open dialogue” and “on-campus opportunities for students to encounter a wide variety of artistic expression should be preserved and encouraged, rather than censored to serve powerful political interests.” Variation in individual reactions to art sparks this robust and open dialogue and allows for reflection on ourselves, our beliefs and values, and our society. Without the First Amendment’s protections, inquiry would be impoverished and meaningful discourse would be imperiled.
FIRE and NCAC urge SCF Bradenton to “adopt viewpoint-neutral exhibition review criteria that emphasize and uphold free expression” so that it can avoid censorship in the future.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).
FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.