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Penn State Gets It Wrong

Pennsylvania State University administrators are again trampling the rights of their students. On Friday, The Daily Collegian, the campus student newspaper, reported [Link updated by FIRE on 9/27/10 due to disappearance of article on original website] that Penn State’s School of Visual Arts cancelled the opening of a student’s exhibit. Staff writer Jessica Remitz reports:

Three days before his 10-piece exhibit—Portraits of Terror—was scheduled to open at the Patterson Building, [Josh] Stulman (senior-painting and anthropology) received an e-mail message from the School of Visual Arts that said his exhibit on images of terrorism “did not promote cultural diversity” or “opportunities for democratic dialogue” and the display would be cancelled.

The exhibit, Stulman said, which is based mainly on the conflict in Palestinian territories, raises questions concerning the destruction of Jewish religious shrines, anti-Semitic propaganda and cartoons in Palestinian newspapers, the disregard for rules of engagement and treatment of prisoners, and the indoctrination of youth into terrorist acts.

Charles Garoian, professor and director of the School of Visual Arts, said Stulman's controversial images did not mesh with the university’s educational mission.

In response to an e-mail, Penn State spokesman Bill Mahon told The Daily Collegian that “there are other issues involved in the display that has caused a problem, issues that have nothing to do with the content of the painting.” Though he created the artwork on his own, Stulman asked Penn State’s Hillel chapter for funding. Hillel, which had sponsored another of Stulman’s exhibits in the same gallery, agreed to give Stulman $75–100 for advertising and food for the opening. The Centre Daily Times reports that Garoian later emailed Stulman and said the School of Visual Arts cancelled the exhibit because the Patterson Gallery is reserved for unsponsored work. The exhibit could continue if Hillel removed its sponsorship. But the Times obtained e-mails from Stulman to Garoian that show that Garoian already knew about the sponsorship, although he did not mention it until last Friday.

Professor David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy has closely followed this incident since Friday. He writes that in response to an e-mail, Mahon told him, “If the student puts up an exhibit without a sponsor funding the exhibit it is fine with the art faculty. He has been told this. That has always been the intent for this hallway and that has not changed because of this exhibit or its content.” In response to this unclear policy, Bernstein writes:

So we have two possibilities here: (1) Penn State's art faculty has a rule against displaying any student work that has any sponsorship, including sponsorship by a recognized student organization such as Hillel. However, this rule is only applied when the faculty doesn’t like the message the art is sending or (2) there is no such rule, or at least it wouldn't apply to a noncommercial, student organization such as Hillel, but pretending there is such a rule is a convenient excuse for what would otherwise look like pure heavy-handed enforcement of political correctness.

Needless to say, neither option reflects well on Penn State.

Bernstein also includes passages from a series of articles that Garoian co-wrote in 1996 in the journal School Arts. The series was called “Censorship in the art classroom,” and in the second article, Garoian wrote:

Members of the school community, including the students, ought to be clearly informed that in our classes they may experience strange, fantastic and controversial works of art—ones that are conceptually and emotionally challenging. Our intention as art teachers is not to shock nor to deny them their cultural values, attitudes and beliefs. They may not like what they experience, and it is not the art teacher’s role to force them to do so. On the contrary, in a cultural democracy, students are taught to understand the purpose of such artworks despite the fact that they may not like or agree with them. Without such understanding, the knowledge of, appreciation and respect for our myriad differences may never be possible.

Penn State is at least guilty of having vague and inconsistently applied policies. While the Patterson Gallery Request Form and Guidelines does have a section entitled “Promote Yourself,” the policy only states, “You are responsible for your own signage, labels advertisements, flyers, posters, and postcards.” It does not ban outside sponsorship. Also, the Collegian reports that the School of Visual Arts cancelled Stulman’s exhibit after reviewing Penn State’s Policy AD42: Statement on Nondiscrimination and Harassment. This policy is currently the subject of a lawsuit brought by FIRE’s former president and current ADF attorney David French. ADF has claimed, and FIRE agrees, that this policy is flatly unconstitutional.

FIRE will continue to watch this case in the hope that Penn State will reject censorship and decide to bring their policies back in line with the Constitution—as, after all, the university is legally required to do.

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