NCAC has written, along with PEN America, to the New York City Department of Education in response to an incident of art censorship at Brooklyn’s P.S. 295. The principal at the elementary school in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood removed a mural created by several fifth graders because of apparent discomfort with some of its content. This silencing of student expression, based purely on dislike of the viewpoint expressed in it, is inconsistent with freedom of expression principles and may violate the public school’s First Amendment obligations. It also sends a terrible message that students’ passionately held views and months of work on the piece could be erased on the whim of school administrators. Although the school subsequently apologized to the students, NCAC has urged the Department of Education to take steps to ensure that such an act of censorship does not happen again.
Several P.S. 295 students were selected to work with a non-profit organization, Groundswell, to produce a mural for display in the school. Shortly after the works were placed on public display, the principal of a middle school which shares a building with P.S. 295, reportedly demanded that P.S. 295’s principal remove the work on the ground that it was “too divisive” and not “inclusive” enough. The specific elements that were subjectively deemed “too divisive” included, among other things, a “Black Trans Lives Matter” sign and a quote from author Audre Lorde that stated, “Your Silence Will Not Protect You.”
Mere disagreement with the students’ speech is not enough to meet the Tinker standard, set more than fifty years ago, holding that student speech can only be silenced if it threatens to significantly disrupt school activities. No one was well served by this violation of expressive freedom, certainly not the students at P.S.295, who have been illegitimately deprived of the opportunity to view and evaluate artistic work for themselves. The action opens the door to suppressing speech in an arbitrary fashion, leaving decisions to the subjective opinions of school officials. It also goes against NYS Education Culturally Responsive Sustaining Education Framework (CR-S) to which the school subscribes.
NCAC has urged the district to develop guidelines governing the display of artwork in school spaces. The guidelines should recognize the freedom of student artists to express their views. They should also establish a process of communication between the administrators of schools sharing building space.
Read the full letter to the Department of Education below. Click here for a full-screen view.