Dr. Chris Markwood
Dean of Arts, Media, and Design
University of Central Oklahoma
Dear Dean Markwood,
We were disturbed to hear about the removal of one of your students’ artwork from an exhibition. Our understanding is that Sarah Wall?aka "PIE"?displayed a number of her works as part of a curated student monochromatic show. The show was located in the art department hallway, a space dedicated to student exhibits and, apparently, the only space where students can show their work. The chair of the art department, Dr. Palmer, saw the work as it was being put on display and did not voice any objections. Two days later, after the opening, he took all but one of PIE’s pieces down without even informing her. Subsequently, Dr. Palmer gave PIE a number of reasons for removing her work: that his secretary objected to it, that students were making derogatory statements about her and he wanted to protect her, that a potential conservative corporate sponsor was going to see the show and might decide against its sponsorship.
The last of these reasons, which appears to have been the key factor in Dr. Palmer’s decision, is profoundly upsetting to anyone who cares about freedom of thought and inquiry. A public college cannot and should not tailor the ideas expressed in it, or the art its students create and display, to the conservative tastes of possible sponsors.
If Dr. Palmer were genuinely concerned about protecting PIE from derogatory statements, taking her work down was not the solution. The way to deal with derogatory statements is to discuss the issues in the classroom?not silence the victim. The lack of faculty support demonstrated in the removal of her work is, in fact, likely to make PIE more vulnerable to hurtful comments.
The 1990 Wolf Trap statement on Academic Freedom and Artistic Expression endorsed by the American Association of University Professors, (adopted at a conference sponsored by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges) emphasizes that artistic expression in a university setting, as well as the presentation of student and faculty work to the public, is integral to the learning process and therefore merits the protection accorded to other scholarly and teaching activities.
Besides being educationally unsound, Dr. Palmer’s action is, quite likely, a violation of the First Amendment. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly defined the university as the "quintessential marketplace of ideas" that warrants heightened First Amendment protection. Even if other considerations compel limiting some forms of speech elsewhere, the university is the first and foremost place where it should be possible to express ideas without imposing conditions on them.
It appears that Dr. Palmer’s decision was made at the spur of the moment and without much consideration. To avoid such arbitrary and hasty actions from stifling the freedom of inquiry and expression of its students in the future, UCO needs to adopt a statement affirming the value of free expression, as well as develop guidelines for the exhibition of student art, which would guarantee the viewpoint-neutral selection of artwork and establish a procedure for responding to challenges. Such guidelines would make it impossible for one administrator or faculty representative to take down a work of art without prior discussion with all parties concerned. I would be happy to send you samples of free expression statements and exhibition guidelines adopted by other institutions. We strongly encourage you to involve UCO students in the process of developing the statement as a way of responding to their legitimate concerns about their right to free expression, as well as preparing them to be active citizens.
Please let us know what action you will take to reaffirm UCO’s commitment to academic freedom. Do not hesitate to call or write to us if you need assistance, materials or further information.
Arts Advocacy Project Coordinator
National Coalition Against Censorship