The Flag and Free Expression

University of Kansas removes art after governor finds it disrespectful. Was this about public safety or political sensibilities?

July 13, 2018
 

An art piece at the University of Kansas featuring a U.S. flag with illustrations on it is stirring up a decades-old debate: Should the flag get special protection under the First Amendment? The Supreme Court says no and has affirmed the right to burn the flag, but the Kansas dispute is one of many in which colleges have been questioned for uses of the flag to make art and/or political points.

"Untitled (Flag 2)" by German artist Josephine Meckseper was intended to serve as commentary on the deep divisions in the United States, according to a statement by the artist. Meckseper drip painted a rough illustration of the U.S. on the flag and a striped sock in the left-hand corner to symbolize children imprisoned on the border. Some are viewing the work as an affront to active military and veterans. Among them is Kansas governor Jeff Colyer, who called for the flag's removal in a statement Wednesday.

“The disrespectful display of a desecrated American flag on the KU campus is absolutely unacceptable,” the statement read. "I demand that it be taken down immediately."

After speaking with Colyer, the university's chancellor, Doug Girod, ordered the removal of the flag, and it is now awaiting a new home inside the Spencer Museum of Art.

The University of Kansas cited public safety concerns as the reason for the flag's removal, but some at Kansas are skeptical about the severity of any threats related to the art piece. In discussions on Twitter and Facebook, users mocked the safety concerns, with one commenter saying the university was "full of crap" about the rationale and another writing that the concerns were code for being "unable and unwilling to protect free speech." The university did not respond to requests to comment on the details of the threats or the flag's removal. According to the university police's daily crime log, an individual reported being harassed on the phone at the Spencer Art Museum around 1 p.m. Wednesday. It is unclear if the incident is related to the flag display.

Peter Bonilla, vice president of programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said public safety concerns are not uncommon excuses for censorship on campus.

"We’ve had enough experience of universities using the public safety justification to rationalize censorship, and in many of those cases, it turns out it wasn't an issue of public safety but a PR move," he said. "People are reasonable to be skeptical of those kinds of justifications until KU shows its work."

The University of Kansas College Republicans sparked the discussion that led to the governor's demands.

"We would like to know who approved and authorized this display of the flag," the group wrote in a Facebook post tagging the university. "Simply put, this is disgusting."

Of late, Republican politicians have generally portrayed themselves as champions of unabashed free speech on campus. But Bonilla said that many people have a few issues that they feel fall outside those principles.

"We see a lot of arguments of the ‘I’m all for free speech, but …’ variety," Bonilla said, the flag being the "but" in this case. "Clearly [the flag is] something that when it is used in a way that people find offensive, there’s a strong reaction," he said. "I think any of us could think of a way that the American flag could be appropriated that we would find offensive."

The University of Kansas isn't the first to face criticism for flag-related art. Broward College received pushback in February for an art piece that resembled the flag as a doormat, an art exhibit involving the flag at the University of Nevada at Reno (at right) was criticized in November and protests erupted at Valdosta State University back in 2015 after students repeatedly stepped on the flag at a demonstration.

Few people admit to favoring censorship, said Nadine Strossen, a law professor at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union. Instead they advocate protection and safety.

"I’m not aware of even the most adamant censor who agrees that the c-word applies to him to her," she said. "I think strategically, it makes sense not to be against something but to be for somebody -- 'I’m not against your message, but I’m for veterans.'"

When it comes to college campuses, Strossen believes that political pressure can dictate what's censored and what's not, instead of free speech commitments that she believes should always be paramount.

"Whatever message is the most unpopular on that campus, or by politicians around that campus, that’s what’s going to be censored," she said. ​

A recent report by FIRE chronicles a history of art censorship by colleges and universities. Meckseper's work is an example of how quickly an artist's intention can be lost in the noise of public reaction. Meckseper wrote about her work for Creative Time, the organization sponsoring her piece and 15 others as part of the "Pledges of Allegiance" collection.

"The flag is a collage of an American flag and one of my dripped paintings which resembles the contours of the United States. I divided the shape of the country in two for the flag design to reflect a deeply polarized country in which a president has openly bragged about harassing women and is withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol and UN Human Rights Council," Meckseper wrote.​

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