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U. of Iowa Censors, Apologizes for Art About Racism

University of Iowa (UI) students, faculty, and administrators are speaking out in support of the censorship of a statue created and displayed on campus by visiting professor Serhat Tanyolacar that they say constitutes “hate speech.” Tanyolacar’s piece comprised a seven foot tall sculpture of a Ku Klux Klan member whose robes are crafted from newspaper articles about racial violence. Many members of the UI community, however, ignored the intended anti-racist message of the piece and instead demanded that the university take action against what they perceive as a racist display—and the university is complying.

Tanyolacar erected the statue last week on an area of campus called the Pentacrest with hopes to “facilitate a dialogue with a community on a college campus,” responding to the controversy over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But students judged the piece to be racist and offensive, and within hours, university police instructed Tanyolacar to take his piece down.

As the student newspaper The Daily Iowan explains, the Pentacrest is normally used for student expression, but community members are required to submit requests to use the space in advance. According to The Daily Iowan, Tanyolacar did not do so. But the conversation surrounding his piece focuses not on what might have been a viewpoint-neutral reason for disallowing the statue but instead on the particular content of the piece, making clear the true motivation behind the censorship.

UI associate professor of journalism Lyombe Eko correctly articulated how the law governs the university, a public institution bound by the First Amendment:

No matter how abhorrent it might be to segments of the university community, the work of art is protected by the First Amendment. … The University of Iowa can only impose time, place, and manner restrictions on Professor Tanyolacar [the artist], not ban his art on the basis of its content.

Unfortunately, not all faculty grasped this concept, including Eko’s department chair:

“The university likely made a viewpoint-based distinction, and according to R.A.V. v. the [C]ity of St. Paul, the court generally cannot make such distinctions,” said David Ryfe, the director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “But there are exceptions; this happened on a university campus for one thing.”

Ryfe said the Supreme Court allows all sorts of content-based distinctions made in the law, and the potential restriction of speech at hand depends on whether one believes hate speech is a legitimate part of the freedom of speech.

One would have hoped that a journalism professor—in fact, the director of UI’s journalism school—would know that speech is not rendered unprotected merely by the fact that it occurs on a public university campus. As the Supreme Court stated over four decades ago in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri (1973), “the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” Apparently, Ryfe’s understanding of First Amendment law could use some refreshing.

Further, Supreme Court precedent makes clear that speech loses First Amendment protection only when it falls into one of just a few narrowly-defined categories of unprotected speech. “Hate speech” is not one of them—as Ryfe himself seems to acknowledge by referencing R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992).

In a letter sent to the university community on Sunday, UI President Sally Mason apologized for the university’s failure to respond quickly and strongly enough to complaints about the statue. Only briefly referencing Tanyolacar’s failure to obtain a permit, the letter detailed how students felt “unwelcome” and disrespected, and Mason promised to “prepare a detailed plan of action.” The university may not, however, prohibit the display of works of art based on students’ subjective emotional responses to them.

The university could prohibit expression that constituted a true threat: “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” Indeed, Mason states that some students felt “fear for their safety.” However, speech—particularly art—should be viewed in context, and a knee-jerk interpretation of Tanyolacar’s piece by those glancing at it and refusing to consider it in context must not be allowed to justify its censorship. Otherwise, UI is paving the way for censorship, as FIRE’s case archives make all too clear. Mason should recall Keith John Sampson, a student-employee at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who was found guilty of racial harassment for merely reading a book about the KKK. Only after pressure from FIRE and the ACLU of Indiana were Sampson’s First Amendment rights vindicated.

This is not the first time Mason has stepped back and apologized in the face of students’ anger over speech that, if tolerated, might have contributed to a productive discussion. Earlier this year, Mason received criticism from students and even from the Iowa Board of Regents for comments she made regarding the problem of sexual assault on campus. Under pressure, she apologized and identified herself as a sexual assault victim.

Instead of catering to students who wish not to see provocative works of art or hear opinions that might upset them, Mason and the rest of the UI administration should take a strong stance in favor of freedom of speech while encouraging disturbed students to share their own viewpoints in response. A clear and unequivocal statement that Tanyolacar’s art is protected on UI’s campus is necessary in order to prevent the chilling of other political speech on campus. And when the next artist learns from Tanyolacar’s oversight and does request use of the Pentacrest in advance, UI must abide by the language of its own policy, which states that an application must not be denied “for any reason that would deny students their rights of freedom of speech and assembly.”

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