Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn, NY temporarily removed a work of student art last week after complaints that its message was offensive. The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) supports student artists’ right to express themselves freely and urges school officials to defend their students in the face of would-be censors. By allowing a “heckler’s veto” to determine what is and is not displayed on its walls, Sunset Park High School would be undermining this student’s—and all students’—First Amendment rights and sending a chilling message to all young artists.
The work, based on a piece by the artist Madam Muse, depicts a young black girl spray painting “Bigger Than Hate” on a wall while a police officer aims a gun at her back.
Whether or not the painting may offend those in law enforcement should not be a factor in its display. As NCAC’s Director of Programs, Svetlana Mintcheva, has written, “In our society, there is no right to not be offended, especially for those in public service, who should be open to critique by the community they serve.”
There is, however, a right to artistic expression and political protest. Schools should encourage their students to use their voices, not silence them at the first sign of dissent.
Created in an after-school workshop run by Black Lives Matter at School, the painting originally hung in the school’s lobby. A photograph of the work was posted on Facebook, along with the school’s phone number. Following a flood of complaints and threats of unknown origin, the painting was removed from the lobby.
NCAC is working with the Sunset Park High School administration to develop guidelines for handling student artworks and protecting students’ rights to free expression.