We recently saw rather bizarre case of a college president having to publicly apologize for saying the “all lives matter” rather than “all Black lives matter” in supporting protests over the Ferguson and New York grand jury decisions. (Ironically, I listened this weekend to protests where leaders chanted “all lives matter” in Washington). Now, Serhat Tanyolacar, a University of Iowa visiting professor and printmaking fellow, has been denounced for a piece of art designed to protest racism after the decision. Iowa officials have declared the art to be the equivalent to hate speech and ordered its removal within hours — with President Sally Mason denouncing the art and apologizing profusely. Now, however, students are calling for the artist to be fired and for a new speech-regulating committee to be established for such public forums.
The Klu Klux Klan figure is covered with newspaper clippings on racial injustice and violence. It is a powerful image that is both artistic and political speech. Tanyolacar sought to create something to “facilitate a dialogue.” He got it. The university however has abandoned any defense of the free speech expression or even tried to understand the obvious purpose of the art. The piece was placed in an area designated as a public forum. Nevertheless, Mason and her staff threw Tanyolacar and free speech under a bus. Smith has said that the school failed “to meet our goal of providing a respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment, the university apologizes.” She has demand that the school “prepare a detailed plan of action” to presumably protect against such expressions of free speech in the future.
Much like law schools supplying professional counselors after the Ferguson decision for students, Mason has ordered university-provided counseling for anyone traumatized by the art work.
I do not question the impact of such an image and I can understand why the image was disturbing for so many. While I cannot say that I share the same cultural and personal pain of African-Americans in relation to such images, I was raised with stories from my mother of how she would often go to sleep with a burning cross on a nearby hill when the local KKK would terrorize her Italian and Catholic community in Ohio. However, this artist was using this well-known image as an important statement against racism an hate. It has now become for many an image of growing speech regulation and intolerance on university campuses.
What is equally shocking is the statement of David Ryfe, director of UI’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UI, who supports viewpoint discrimination, stating “If it was up to me, and me alone. I would follow the lead of every European nation and ban this type of speech.” That is the director of a school of journalism.
We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here) and England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. We have seen even comedians targets with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. (here and here). However, it is the appearance of effective speech codes on campuses that are the most worrisome. We have even saw a professor attack demonstrators with the later support of faculty and students who have justified her actions as responding to the “terrorism” of pro-life displays.
The statue tar screen prints of newspaper clippings depicting coverage of racial tensions, riots, and killings dating to the early 1900s was a faculty member’s effort to express his own creative feelings in a place for public discussion. Nevertheless, he was forced to apologize and issued a statement that “I sincerely apologize for the pain and suffering I caused to the African American community on Friday,” he said. “I am hoping that I will be able to be forgiven for the pain I have caused with my sculpture.”
Tanyolacar is the father of a mix-raced 8-year-old boy and has faced “racism and prejudice” in his own life. He recently participated in an exhibition project called, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Artists Respond” in St. Louis.
Nevertheless, students are continuing to protest and complain over the now removed art. Kayla Wheeler, a third year doctoral student in the UI Department of Religious Studies, has criticized the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for promoting the statue on social media and demanded a “social media oversight committee” to regulate such speech in the future to satisfy the sensibilities of the public. Moreover, she and others want the artist fired. Wheeler stated “If he is not fired immediately and returns to campus next semester, he should not be allowed to teach any students.”
By the way, Nic Arp, director of strategic communications for the college, who earlier attempted to defend the expression of free speech removed that defense from social media and issued his own apology “for contributing to people’s very real and understandable pain. I have learned a lot about how my own privilege and culture bias informed my own initial reaction to it.” He added:
“I’m a white person and responded to it first and foremost as a piece of art and not in the way an African American might — as a very real and scary symbol. I wanted to take personal responsibility and say, hey, I’ve learned a lot and I’m embarrassed by my own insensitivity about it.”
I will confess that I have a “bias” in favor of free speech that shades my view of this incident. Public forums come with all types of speech: good, bad, valuable or valueless. Bad speech is combatted with good speech — not pre-speech approvals or firing artists. Some of us have growing concern over the level of speech regulation that is occurring on our campuses, which were once bastions of free speech.