Preserving Artistic Freedom on Campus

October 19, 2016

Today, FIRE continues to celebrate Free Speech Week by exploring the importance of free speech in the arts—specifically performing arts, visual arts, and literature.

Free speech is often discussed in the context of political discourse, so it is important to acknowledge that free speech also encompasses artistic freedom and the right to free expression. Like dissenting political views, creative works have always been subject to censorship efforts.

Philosophers, politicians, religious leaders, and activists alike have long feared the effects of art and literature on both individuals and society. For instance, Book X of Plato’s Republic featured his student, Socrates, advocating for art censorship. Socrates argued that poetry and other creative works possess the power to corrupt the ignorant by encouraging people to indulge in their irrational emotions and passions, conceivably dismantling an otherwise stable society as a result.

Recognition of art’s impact both led Socrates to envisage art as a threat to society and has motivated free speech advocates to enthusiastically protect artistic freedom. The American values we extol—open dialogue, diverse perspectives, a marketplace of ideas—all depend upon free artistic expression. Yet we are far from achieving a society free from censorship of art.

Art censorship is particularly concerning on college campuses where, ideally, discourse and creativity should flourish. The vast majority of American colleges claim to value intellectual exploration and guarantee the right of all students to speak their minds, and public universities have the additional responsibility of upholding the First Amendment. Even so, new violations of artistic freedom on campus emerge all too often.

Take, for example, a recent case at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). The university cancelled a September 29 performance of the satirical play N*gger, W*tback, Ch*nk (N*W*C) in response to criticism of the play’s provocative content. The show, which has been performed by African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-American actors since its inception over a decade ago, uses humor to draw attention to the serious impact that racial slurs and stereotypes have on the lives and identities of minorities—and yet it was deemed too offensive to minorities to be performed at a CSULB campus venue (despite positive reception when performed at CSULB in September 2015).

FIRE, together with the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund (DLDF), wrote to CSULB to express our concerns about this censorship of art and violation of free speech. Disappointingly, CSULB hasn’t responded to FIRE’s letter.

Obviously, canceling this performance of N*W*C did not end racism; it stifled conversation and trampled on the principles of artistic freedom. Campus administrators, however, aren’t always to blame for violating free expression. Students themselves are now calling for the removal of art displays on campus grounds, like a statue of a sleepwalking man at Wellesley College and a fine arts graduate student project at SUNY Buffalo.

This threat doesn’t stop at the classroom door. Students are quickly branding literature that doesn’t clearly promote an “acceptable” ideology as dangerous, unacceptable art to be avoided. Such was the case with Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which was removed from Columbia University’s core curriculum after students complained that the narrative was offensive because of its sexual violence. Similar complaints about required readings have been filed at universities across the country.

Reception of visual art has been no different. In December 2014, FIRE wrote to the University of Iowa (UI) regarding the forced removal of faculty artist Serhat Tanyolacar’s artwork from an outdoor campus area in response to complaints of offense. Tanyolacar’s piece, “In Their Shoes,” consisted of newspaper clippings depicting racial violence printed onto a Ku Klux Klan-style robe. Like the N*W*C play, this artwork was not meant to be racist, but rather to bring awareness to racism. However, this was not enough to stop UI from condemning the piece as “deeply offensive to members of our community” and apologizing for their failure to foster a safe campus.

UI’s true failure was in purging the campus of objectionable material rather than encouraging discussion and engagement with a provocative piece of artwork. The greatest threat did not come from Tanyolacar’s “In Their Shoes,” but rather from the university’s blatant violation of his First Amendment rights and unapologetic rejection of artistic freedom.

Limiting artistic freedom on campus is dangerous because it stifles dialogue. Only when artists are able to push boundaries and express themselves honestly, without fear of censorship or retribution, can audiences engage with a wide variety of themes and viewpoints. Art is powerful, and it challenges us. Art can make us uncomfortable, begging us to question the culture and society in which we live. Today we celebrate artistic freedom, and encourage students to use Free Speech Week as an opportunity to consider both the value of free speech and the importance of standing up to defend artistic freedom.