First Amendment Lessons

Freedom of expression tests at Wisconsin-Green Bay (art), St. Lawrence University (Web site) and Baylor (coffee cups).
September 19, 2005

Congress ordered colleges to plan activities this year to observe Constitution Day, which was Saturday. Several colleges have also offered their own lessons about freedom of expression in the last week. The chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay ordered a controversial piece of art removed from an exhibit; St. Lawrence University dropped a lawsuit against an anonymous Web site; and Baylor University barred the campus Starbucks from using coffee cups with a quote that the university feared was pro-gay.

An Exhibit Under Fire

The exhibit "Axis of Evil: The Secret History of Sin" is creating quite a stir this year on campuses. When it opened in April at Columbia College Chicago, Secret Service agents came to ask questions about a work entitled "Patriot Act," which depicts a series of fake stamps showing President Bush with a revolver pointed toward his head. Columbia officials were offended that the Secret Service appeared to be taking an interest in art criticism, and the college defended the exhibit.

When the exhibit opened at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay last week, "Patriot Act" was not there -- the chancellor had ordered it removed from the show, prompting complaints from faculty members and a protest by students.

Bruce Shepard, the chancellor, sent an e-mail message to students and faculty members explaining his decision. While he has heard the piece described as "only art," Shepard said that such an attitude neglects "the important role of art in shaping our culture, forming our beliefs, and directing our actions. Art matters. Precisely for that reason and having come of age during a period in our history when political assassinations came in all too rapid succession, the advocacy of assassination is something I view as neither abstract nor theoretical....  [T]he one piece of concern very reasonably can be seen as expressing advocacy of assassination."

He went on to say that he wasn't upset about the piece being "too provocative," and that he thought other pieces in the exhibit were more provocative. "It is a question of whether this campus will use publicly provided resources for what, very reasonably and by many, will be construed as advocacy of a most violent and unlawful act."

In an e-mail response to questions about his decision, Shepard said that he made the decision only after "sleepless nights," and that it was appropriate for a chancellor to be involved in making the decision, not just curators or professors. He noted that a university gallery is not just used for courses, but is open to the public and in fact encouraged the public to view its exhibits. He would never bar a student from putting up the artwork in his or her dorm room, he said, but an exhibit carries the reputation of the university with it. And in considering the public perspective, he said, "the gallery director and the art faculty are not the experts and it is the responsibility, in the end, for the chancellor."

While acknowledging differences between the arts and athletics, Shepard offered the following analogy to defend his involvement: When he was just starting his academic career, he worked at a university with a top wresting team. The team's coach wanted to take his team to a competition in South Africa during a time that many academic groups were boycotting that country's apartheid policies.

The coach said it was an athletic matter, not a political one, so his views should be the ones that count. "The president allowed this," Shepard said. "To my way of thinking, the president failed to exercise his responsibility for considering the overall reputation of the university. Yes, the coach may be right on athletic ground. But, the president had broader grounds to consider. He had not only the right, but the responsibility, to consider those broader grounds."

Thus far, the chancellor's arguments are not swaying students or faculty members. A group of 30 students organized a protest in which they all wore T-shirts with the image of the artwork the chancellor had removed and stood silently outside the gallery where it was to have been shown. "It is the right of any artist in a public institution to not be censored," said Erica Millspaugh, one of the students who organized the protest. "Every day in school we are working to make art that expresses our feelings and desires, and our professors never censor us. They encourage us to think and act boldly." The chancellor's decision not only hurt "Patriot Act," she said, but was "an attack on us all."

Professors of art at Green Bay have sent a letter around campus criticizing the chancellor's decision. In their letter, the professors say that the chancellor "missed a valuable opportunity to educate our donors as well as our student body about the role of visual art in a liberal arts education and its representation of diverse viewpoints and opinions."

Noting that they were not consulted on the decision, the professors said that "if the artwork under discussion 'crossed a line,' it is our belief that an open discussion of the criteria for such a judgment was in order."

Watchdog Web Site

Administrators at St. Lawrence University have found themselves mocked -- and some of their internal memos leaked -- at Take Back Our Campus, an anonymous blog. The student critics who created the blog rail on administrators for not adequately supporting low-income students, for paying themselves excessive salaries, and for going to federal court to try to find out who is behind the blog.

St. Lawrence officials have previously said that they weren't trying to unmask the blog authors because of the criticism of administrators, but because some of the criticism hurt other students. Last week, however, St. Lawrence announced that it was withdrawing its suit.

A  brief e-mail from Daniel F. Sullivan, St. Lawrence's president, to students and faculty members said that "we made the decision after several months' consideration, during which time the harassment of students had ceased." A spokeswoman for St. Lawrence said that the short e-mail message was the only comment the university planned to make.

Take Back Our Campus estimates that the university spent at least $15,000 trying to figure out who was behind the site. One of the site authors recently wrote on the site that he would reveal himself to Sullivan if the president would add $30,000 to the university's budget for programs for disadvantaged students "who don't have credit cards from their Westchester and Connecticut mommies and daddies."

That author, responding to questions via e-mail, said he was "very, very unsurprised" that the university was dropping the suit. He said that many people are afraid to criticize the St. Lawrence administration, but that he had recruited a small group of people to help on the site, and to take over when he moves on. He said he couldn't say whether the university has responded to the criticisms he has raised. But he added that "transparency and accountability for those in power is a good thing and worth fighting for."

Coffee Cups

At Baylor University, administrators no longer need to fear the influence of Armistead Maupin on coffee drinkers. Baylor's student newspaper, The Lariat, reported that officials asked the campus outlet of Starbucks to remove a line of coffee cups featuring a quote from Maupin, an author best known for his Tales of the City series about gay life in San Francisco.

Starbucks has been using coffee cups with quotes from a variety of authors (from a range of political perspectives) as part of its "The Way I See It" campaign, which is based on the idea that people talk about ideas in coffeehouses.

Concerned Women for America and other conservative groups have criticized Starbucks for including the Maupin quote, which reads: "My only regret about being gay is that I repressed it for so long. I surrendered my youth to the people I feared when I could have been out there loving someone. Don't make that mistake yourself. Life's too damn short."

Since The Lariat article appeared, Baylor officials have stopped commenting on their order to Starbucks, but Linda Ricks, marketing program manager of Baylor Dining Services, said that Starbucks was asked to removed the cups out of respect for "Baylor culture." Ricks added, "There are different view points on the Baylor campus," Ricks said. "We pulled the cup to be sensitive to view points."


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