Statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship Regarding the Recent Removal of an Artwork from an Exhibition at BGSU Firelands’ Little Gallery

The recent removal of artwork by James Parlin from an exhibition of sculpture in the Little Gallery at Bowling Green State University Firelands is an unacceptable violation of the academic freedom to openly discuss ideas and social problems in a public university, whether these ideas are expressed in books, in the classroom, or in visual form in the gallery. The removal of the work at a public university also raises serious First Amendment concerns.

It is our understanding that the exhibition was put on display following the usual process of selection. One of the sculptures was subsequently removed by the BGSU administration without the consent of either the artist of the gallery’s director. The University has stated that the sculpture was removed from the exhibition because its subject matter was considered “inappropriate” for children and families that come to campus.

While we understand that the topic of the sexual abuse of children, which is the subject of the sculpture, might be disturbing to many, it is frequently a topic in film, literature, as well as the daily news. That a public university administrator subjectively believes that raising the issue of sexual abuse in the university gallery is not “appropriate” cannot be a valid reason to remove artwork from display. Indeed, excluding work that some administrator might find “inappropriate” could well chill an extremely wide variety of work in all mediums of expression – most likely precisely the work that deals with the most important, and thus most sensitive, issues of the day.

Students at a public university are there to learn to confront the complexities of the world they are entering as citizens and professionals. Tailoring the appropriateness of what is shown at a university gallery to what might be fit for schoolchildren would severely compromise the educational process.

Were the University concerned about exposing visiting children to the work, there are ways to resolve that concern other than censorship. It is our understanding that, though the work was displayed close to the window of the gallery, it was only visible from within the gallery. Therefore, closing the gallery at the times when there were children’s productions in the nearby theater would have been an easy way to avoid the possibility that children may stroll in. Another option might have been to post a sign informing parents that the content of the exhibition may be inappropriate for young children.

As a public educational institution, BGSU Firelands is bound by the First Amendment obligation not to discriminate against particular ideas, no matter how controversial they might be. 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.

We urge BGSU Firelands to restore the exhibition to display in its entirety as soon as possible.