According to media reports, the Bullock Texas State History Museum withdrew as co-host of a virtual event with the authors of Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of An American Myth. The July 1st event was cancelled in the wake of pressure from a number of state politicians, including Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who announced on Twitter that he “told staff to cancel this event.” The Museum cited “increased social media pressure.” Forget the Alamo reframes the history of the Battle of the Alamo, complicating traditional narratives by highlighting the role preserving slavery played in Texas’s fight for independence from Mexico.
NCAC, along with several national free expression organizations, has written to the Texas State Preservation Board of Governors, as well as the Bullock Museum’s leadership to reinforce their responsibility to uphold free expression and avoid allowing political bias to influence what ideas the public is allowed to discuss.
As NCAC wrote, “Discussing a book about a historical event at a history museum does not constitute an endorsement of the views expressed by the authors. On the contrary, by hosting the event, the museum was doing exactly what a history museum should be doing: offering space for discussion. Indeed, the event was precisely in line with the Bullock Museum’s stated mission to ‘interpret the continually unfolding Story of Texas through meaningful educational experiences.’”
NCAC argues that the State Preservation Board does not have the power to overrule the curatorial decisions of Bullock Museum staff merely because Governing Board members disagree with the views expressed in museum exhibits or by participants in museum events. The discussion of Forget the Alamo was clearly educational in nature, did not constitute lobbying, and was not otherwise excludable under Texas statute. Particularly given the elected positions held by Board members, the directive to cancel the event constitutes a censorious veto based very clearly in viewpoint discrimination.
As the letter to the Board states, “It is clear from the public statements of Texas government officials that the event was canceled because those officials disagreed with the views expressed by the authors of the book. Such viewpoint discrimination is unconstitutional. While the Museum’s offerings do not constitute a traditional public forum, even in nonpublic fora, the government may not engage in viewpoint discrimination.”
With increasing frequency, elected officials are using their power to pressure cultural institutions to censor ideas with which they disagree. This trend is directly connected to efforts to control how history is taught in schools. There is often an underlying threat that officials will try to punish the institution, potentially by withholding funding, even though that would violate the First Amendment.
It is ultimately up to museum leaders to defend the museum’s commitment to providing a wide range of programming, allowing audiences to encounter new and controversial ideas, to challenge their own preconceptions and to broaden their thinking. Protecting the autonomy of cultural institutions from political partisanship is a core responsibility of those charged with administering them.
And it is imperative that we object when our political leaders attempt to control the discussions our cultural institutions are allowed to inspire. As a society, we rely on these institutions to provide spaces for civic discourse and to allow us to interrogate ideas, whether we agree or disagree with those ideas.
NCAC stands in support of cultural leaders in resisting political pressure and maintaining autonomy for cultural institutions.
Read the full letter to Margaret Koch, Director of the Bullock Texas State History Museum here. The letter was cosigned by Authors Guild, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and PEN America.
Read the full letter to the Texas State Preservation Board Governing Board below. Click here for a full-screen view.