VICTORY: Art institute reverses expulsion for student who retweeted sexual art

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VICTORY: Art institute reverses expulsion for student who retweeted sexual art

When an art school tried to brush aside student rights, FIRE bristled.
KCAI victory

KANSAS CITY, Mo., July 14, 2022 — A student expelled from Kansas City Art Institute for retweeting sexual art won their appeal Tuesday, notching a victory for free expression. KCAI reversed the expulsion decision against student Ash Mikkelsen after a demand from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. 

“When we have an art school investigating and punishing students for their artistic expression, we have a real problem,” said FIRE program officer Sabrina Conza. “Ash should have never had their academic future threatened because an art school didn’t like the type of art they shared on their personal social media account.”

Mikkelsen retweeted sexually explicit Japanese-style cartoons, known as hentai, on their personal, pseudonymous Twitter account. Allegedly, the art institute investigated Mikkelsen for sexual harassment in response to the complaint of another student, who found the account and told administrators about the images. Though Mikkelsen did not tag anyone from the university community in their Twitter posts or send messages related to the account to anyone , KCAI expelled Mikkelsen for their artistic expression — and banned them from ever re-enrolling.

“I’m relieved that the school has recognized its mistake and rectified its actions,” Mikkelsen said. “Knowing that standing up for free expression will now allow other students to consume fictitious content without fearing punishment is icing on the cake.”

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 indefinite disciplinary standards. Moreover, Mikkelsen’s retweets don’t come anywhere close to meeting the legal definition of sexual harassment. 

As a private university, KCAI is not bound by the First Amendment’s protections for free speech. But KCAI’s policies, which the college 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 met with Mikkelsen the same day to discuss the investigation. On June 29, Mikkelsen again met with Assistant Dean of Students Joe Timson, who told Mikkelsen that they would be expelled for violating the Student Code of Conduct. Mikkelsen was not given an adequate chance to contest the allegations prior to the university imposing the most severe penalty possible.

KCAI gave Mikkelsen five business days to appeal the finding, which they did on July 6, with the assistance of FIRE Legal Network attorney Ted Green.

“I’m glad telling KCAI to van Gogh to hell resulted in Ash being cleared,” Conza said. “While KCAI’s decision to overturn Ash’s expulsion was correct, it should not have taken FIRE’s advocacy and an attorney to reach that conclusion. Unfortunately, the school’s actions will have a chilling effect far past Ash to other students who fear punishment due to the nature of the art they create or share.”

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.

CONTACT:

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

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