Penn State President Blocks Art Censorship

Student's exhibit had been called off because his paintings criticizing Palestinian terrorists were viewed as offensive.
April 27, 2006

The president of Pennsylvania State University has overturned a decision by its School of Visual Arts to call off a student art exhibit that criticizes Palestinian terrorist groups.

The director of the school, Charles Garoian, called off the show days before it was to have started, saying that it did not promote diversity and that it might violate Penn State's regulations against harassment and discrimination. After several days of campus debate, during which Hillel reported receiving anti-Semitic phone calls, President Graham Spanier told the Faculty Senate this week that the exhibit would take place.

In an e-mail interview, Spanier said: "Penn State does not and will not censor artwork. I wanted to make this perfectly clear to everyone. Crossing that line would compromise so many of the fundamental values of academe."

While the student, Joshua Stulman, is pleased that he will be able to show his work, he remains angry that the head of an academic division tried to block his work because of its content. The director of the Penn State Hillel, while praising Spanier for intervening, is also demanding a public apology for what has happened, saying that the art school's conduct was "pathetic and morally repugnant."

Stulman, an art major, has been working on his series of 10 paintings for two years. He said he was prompted to do so by an art school showing of a pro-Palestinian film that Stulman thought distorted some issues. He said that rather than argue against the film being shown, he decided to attend, and then to work on his own art to express another point of view.

His paintings cover such topics as the backgrounds of Palestinian leaders, the impact of terrorism on Israelis, and the way mothers of suicide bombers are honored by Palestinians. Stulman said that he believed that terrorism was supported "only by a minority of Muslims, a minority of Palestinians," but that it was important to be able to criticize that minority. ( A photograph of one of the paintings is online, at the end of an article in Penn State's student newspaper.)

In an e-mail message canceling the show, Garoian said that he was doing so after reviewing various policies, including Penn State's statement against discrimination and harassment and the university's "Zero Tolerance for Hate" policy. While his letter calling off the show did not cite any specifics, he had earlier questioned Stulman about images showing a Hamas faction using a Nazi-style salute.

The art school, Garoian wrote, "is committed to promoting cultural diversity and assuring opportunities for democratic dialogue within the context of its classrooms and its exhibition spaces. I believe that Josh's work does not promote those tenets."

After the student paper started to write about the controversy, Garoian sent another e-mail saying that his only concern was that Hillel was co-sponsoring the event and that outside sponsorship violated the rules. Stulman said that this was disingenuous because Hillel agreed only to supply some refreshments for a reception, had done so for a previous exhibit, and had made known its willingness to help out. Stulman said that Garoian was trying to get around his earlier objections to the content of the show, noting that Hillel supplying some snacks could hardly violate Penn State's harassment rules.

The comments about Hillel, then reported in the Penn State area, led to a series of anti-Semitic phone calls to Hillel and its executive director, Tuvia Abramson. He said he has been receiving harassing calls along the lines of "can't you Jews follow the rules?" Abramson said that the art school has tried to scapegoat Hillel. He also noted that he has still not seen the paintings Stulman can now show, and that Hillel supports Jewish students with a range of views about Israel and other issues.

Garoian did not respond to requests to talk for this article. Some letter writers to The Daily Collegian, the student paper, backed his decision. Aqsa Ahmad, a junior at Penn State, wrote: "The whole idea of free speech is understandable, but when it comes to hurting or poking fun of another religion, discrimination and hate come into play. Stulman's exhibit may have been directed toward Palestinians, but because Islam promotes the idea that everyone is each other's sister or brother, all Muslims become victims of this propaganda."

Other letters expressed anger that the exhibit had been called off. Steve Meneogzzi, a senior, questioned why students weren't allowed "to form their own opinions of the paintings." He added that students should express "outrage" over the censorship of the show because "otherwise, in a few years, the only Penn State-approved paintings will be of the whole world holding hands under a rainbow."


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