The National Coalition Against Censorship has written to Missouri Governor Michael L. Parson after state officials removed an exhibit about LGBTQ history from the Missouri Capitol. The exhibit was relocated to another venue after a handful of legislators and one state employee complained about its contents, clearly indicating viewpoint bias. This act of censorship flies in the face of the First Amendment obligations of both the State of Missouri and Jefferson City. NCAC strongly urges Governor Parson to order the exhibit returned to the Capitol, and to take steps to ensure that similar acts of censorship do not occur in the future.
According to media reports, the traveling exhibit, Making History, was created by historians at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and was intended for display in the Missouri State Museum at the Capitol for four months.
State officials have claimed that the exhibit was removed because it had not been approved by the state’s Board of Public Buildings. However, no exhibit has been approved by the Board, nor removed because the Board had not given its approval, for at least twenty years.
Removing the exhibit raises serious First Amendment concerns. Our courts have time and again reaffirmed that the First Amendment prohibits public officials from censoring art they find offensive or provocative. The case of Hopper and Rupp v. City of Pasco, 241 F.3d 1067 (2001) in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is a case in point. The plaintiff artists were invited to display their work at City Hall and were then precluded from doing so because the work provoked controversy and public officials considered it “sexually suggestive.” The appeals court noted that Pasco, by opening its display space to expressive activity evinced “an intent to create a designated public forum.” In such a forum, the court concluded, the content-based removal of work would only be justifiable if there is a “compelling state interest and is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”
As a public space open to exhibiting artwork, state-owned spaces are ruled by the free speech clause in the First Amendment. This means that government officials cannot arbitrarily or systematically impose their prejudices on a curated exhibition, simply by labeling works “inappropriate” or “contrary to family values.”
The fact that the exhibit has found another home does not relieve government officials from liability for its removal. The State of Missouri must decide whether it will allow the prejudices of a few people to determine what the public can see. NCAC hopes that the State will return the exhibit to the Capitol and will develop guidelines governing the display of exhibitions in government spaces that recognize the freedom of artists and historians to express diverse views and affirm the rights of people in the community to see a wide range of artistic and historical exhibits.
Read the full letter to the school district below. Click here for a full screen view: