- The posts include drawings of characters engaged in sexual acts
- Expelled student: Shocking overreach ‘leaves me worried for the future of other artists like me’
- College makes up rules to expel student over artistic expression, alleges sexual harassment and a hostile learning environment
- FIRE: ‘Art history is full of censors, but today KCAI is the one holding the fig leaf’
KANSAS CITY, Mo., July 6, 2022 — Somebody buy a bra for the Venus de Milo, because the puritanical Kansas City Art Institute is on a tear.
Incoming student Ash Mikkelsen (they/them) is fighting to defend artistic expression and their academic future after retweeting sexually explicit Japanese-style cartoons featuring nudity and sex, known as hentai, on their personal, pseudonymous Twitter account. The art institute investigated Mikkelsen, alleging that the images could constitute sexual harassment and contribute to a hostile learning environment. Though Mikkelsen did not tag anyone from the university community in their posts or send messages to anyone relating to the account, KCAI expelled Mikkelsen for their artistic expression — and permanently banned them from ever re-enrolling at the school.
Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression sent a letter to KCAI demanding that the school immediately reverse the outrageous expulsion.
“This experience has left me feeling angry, but more importantly, disappointed,” Mikkelsen said. “I’m fighting back to show that it’s not acceptable to punish students for what they say, do, or make — even if the administration doesn’t like what that protected activity encompasses.”
After one student allegedly found the account and complained to administrators, KCAI attempted to justify investigating and then expelling Mikkelsen for non-Title IX hostile environment sexual harassment under its Student Code of Conduct. However, KCAI does not define sexual harassment under that code. It’s patently unfair and unlawful to punish students under unpublished disciplinary standards. Moreover, Mikkelsen’s retweets don’t come anywhere close to meeting the legal definition of sexual harassment.
“Art history is full of censors, but today KCAI is the one holding the fig leaf,” said FIRE Program Officer Sabrina Conza. “Instead of protecting artistic expression — as it promises to do — the art institute pried into Ash’s personal life in order to find a reason to be offended and then concocted a scheme to expel them. People are offended by all sorts of artistic expression. But offense alone doesn’t justify censorship — especially by an art school.”
As a private university, KCAI is not bound by the First Amendment’s protections for free speech. But KCAI’s policies, which it is morally and contractually required to uphold, state that the school “is committed to freedom of expression,” “supports the rights of the campus community to engage in free speech and open assembly,” and values “intellectual and artistic curiosity together with critical and creative inquiry.”
The school first notified Mikkelsen of the investigation into their Twitter account on June 15 and discussed the charges that same day. On June 29, Assistant Dean of Students Joe Timson told Mikkelsen that they would be expelled — without any meaningful chance to contest the allegations — for violating the Student Code of Conduct.
“As a veteran and as an American, I’m protective of my rights — they are something my friends fought and died for,” said Mikkelsen, who served in the Marines. “So for KCAI to so frivolously tread on them leaves me worried for the future of other artists like me.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.
Daniel Burnett, Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org