One of the defining characteristics of art is its ability to affect people in strikingly different ways. Some might find a painting inspirational; others might find it poignant; still others might find it offensive. As the Supreme Court explained in Cohen v. California, “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” This is particularly true when an artist attempts to push boundaries. A society dedicated to freedom of expression ought to welcome such work and the potential for thoughtful provocation that it offers. But when unorthodox art triggers controversy on the modern college campus, administrators often take dramatic measures to suppress it.
MIT students recently witnessed this type of suppression when the school painted over certain murals in the Burton-Conner dormitory. Unconventional student art can be found throughout the halls of Burton-Conner. The building is filled with “lovely, quirky, bizarre, exquisitely beautiful art,” according to Anne McCants, the dormitory’s housemaster. The censored murals, however, touched upon aspects of college life that some might find distasteful, including drinking and sexual activity. McCants stated that these images could have been interpreted “as a celebration of drunkenness” and advocacy of violence and sexual misconduct.
As Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, or Pablo Picasso could have told you, art is not always popular or free from controversy. Though a private university not bound by the First Amendment, MIT should encourage its students to express themselves in a variety of ways about a wide range of issues, including those that elicit heated debate. The quest for knowledge and insight requires no less.
But on campus these days, expressing controversial viewpoints is a risky endeavor. Over a decade of defending free speech rights in higher education has taught me that today’s colleges are often surprisingly hostile toward expression that might cause offense. In fact, a 2010 survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that only 16.7 percent of professors and 30.3 percent of college seniors strongly agree that “it is safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.” The right to free artistic expression tends to lose when it collides with a newer (and usually implicit) expectation: that students have the right “to not be offended.” Consider the following examples.
The University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) recently triggered accusations of artistic censorship when it suspended a 20-year program that hosted various art exhibitions. The latest show, Tom Gregg’s Unsold, featured paintings that included hand grenades, bullets, and pistols. On July 30, 2013, KUMC shut down the show before schedule and discontinued the entire program, claiming that budget issues necessitated this decision. However, former KUMC library curator Melissa Rountree asserted that the administration told her to remove the paintings because they did not align with the school’s core mission.
Indeed, administrators often rely upon flimsy arguments to justify censorship. The president of Gainesville State College (GSC) scrambled to rationalize her decision to remove a GSC instructor’s painting from a faculty art exhibition in January of 2011. Stanley Bermudez’ piece superimposed images of a lynching and Ku Klux Klansmen bearing torches on a Confederate flag. After the Southern Heritage Alert blog blasted the art as insulting to the memories of Confederate soldiers, President Martha Nesbitt pulled the painting, arguing that “the negative results” of displaying it “would outweigh the positive ones.”
In both of these situations, there is one constant: the expressive rights of artists were deemed inferior to others’ desire to avoid having their sensibilities challenged. If merely controversial expression can lead to such censorship, it is no surprise that artistic satire and parody are particularly vulnerable to attack on campus.
In April of 2005, Chris Lee, a student at Washington State University (WSU), discovered this when WSU launched a bizarre attack against his bawdy, irreverent comedy Passion of the Musical. Lee’s stated goal for the play, which satirized a vast array of people and beliefs, was “to show people we’re not that different, we all have issues that can be made fun of.” WSU administrators objected so strongly to the production that they trained approximately 40 students to disrupt it, using university funds to purchase their tickets. The hecklers, who threatened the cast members with violence and repeatedly yelled, “I am offended,” managed to shut down the performance.
The desire to prevent “offense” often cloaks the desire to silence one’s opponents with the seemingly noble goal of ensuring that everyone is comfortable. And people are generally more comfortable with popular ideas that don’t “rock the boat.” There is certainly a place for safe, popular art, whether it is the paintings of Thomas Kinkade or the music of Taylor Swift. But there is also tremendous value in art that forces us to challenge our beliefs. Do we want to live in a world where artists are not allowed to stray beyond the confines of comfort, and where unusual expression is quickly suppressed?
Unfortunately, this is the attitude that today’s college students are learning to accept. In July of 2013, the First Amendment Center released its annual “State of the First Amendment” survey. The study found that the youngest respondents were by far the least supportive of First Amendment protections. A startling 47 percent of those aged 18–30 felt the First Amendment “goes too far” in the rights it guarantees—approximately double the number of older respondents (24 percent of those aged 40–60 and 23 percent of those over 60).
Our college students appear to be internalizing the message that speech should be restricted, and are taking that outlook with them when they leave campus. The resulting implications for freedom of speech in all forms, from the spoken word to the artist’s canvas, are grim. If we want artists — on campus or off — to continue to be able to push boundaries, we can’t expect them to walk on eggshells.
MIT would do the students in Burton-Conner, the artists of the murals, and the campus community a tremendous service by refraining from censoring students’ art. As Frederick Douglass said over 150 years ago, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” If MIT wants to live up to its world class reputation, it must allow ideas, expression, and art to be free.
Greg Lukianoff is the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.