In December 2006, a student magazine prepared as the final project for a cultural studies course at the Art Institute of California in San Francisco (a privately owned college), was pulled from circulation by the Institute’s administration. The magazine included two items that the administration found objectionable: an artwork depicting corporate logos (one of which was for Goldman-Sachs, the Institute’s owner) overlaid with the words “organized crime” and a short story featuring three African-American males who use racially charged language and go on a rape and killing spree. At the end of the story it is revealed that the African-American males are, in fact, video game characters controlled by three white boys. According to the story’s student author, he meant it to convey a message about racial stereotyping in the video game industry.
The Institute’s stated reason for confiscating the magazine was concern that the artwork might be deemed a copyright infringement. It also noted that the story was racially derogatory, that the “unprofessional and ungrammatical work” in the magazine did not “represent the school well” and that the instructor responsible for the magazine (who was subsequently fired, allegedly for unrelated reasons) did not follow school policy in obtaining prior approval for distribution of the student project.
An excerpt from the Institute’s student handbook states that “[t]he Art Institutes also reserve the right to select artwork that is appropriate to a given circumstance and may choose not to display work that might be viewed as objectionable by some audiences.”
Two prior incidents of censorship by the Institute have also been reported. In one instance, a student photograph depicting a condom and fluid on a plate with a piece of toast was removed from an exhibition. In the other, a student said one of his sculptures inspired by space aliens was removed from a gallery after complaints that it resembled female genitalia.
Are there First Amendment concerns?
The First Amendment protects expression from interference by government officials. The officials at a private college, however, do not represent government, hence when they decide to remove a work because of its viewpoint they do not violate the First Amendment.
Is there any protection for the freedom of speech of students at a private school?
California’s Education Code Section 94367, passed by the state legislature in 1992 and commonly referred to as the Leonard Law, extends First Amendment protections, normally limited to state institutions, to private, post-secondary educational institutions such as the Art Institute. The law prohibits such private institutions from “mak[ing] or enforc[ing] any rule subjecting any student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside the campus or facility of a private postsecondary institution, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment. . . . “
In a comment obviously intended to address Leonard Law concerns, the Art Institute noted that it had not sanctioned faculty or students in connection with the magazine’s publication.
Short of disciplining students are there no limits to what expression a private college can suppress?
The first and foremost responsibility of educational institutions in the U.S. is to give their students a good education. Their core mission is to advance knowledge and train a new generation of informed citizens and competent leaders. To do this they need to remain open to a diversity of views, to current debates in science and the humanities, to free exploration of ideas. In short they need to uphold the principle of academic freedom.
For an art institute to suppress student artwork and student-produced magazines is to put the quality of education the institute offers in doubt. If students are not able to test their creative ideas in the safe environment of the college, their future careers would suffer and, with that, the reputation of the institution granting them degrees of higher learning.
Suppressing objectionable material is an abdication of the educational mission. An institution of higher learning should teach students how to respond to racist or otherwise offensive speech rather than putting a gag on it and driving it underground – and, in the process, often suppressing speech critical of racism, as happened in this case.
If concerned about its reputation, the Institute can take measures to make it clear that the views expressed in an artwork or a magazine article are only those of the student and are not necessarily endorsed by the institution. A reputation of censorship can potentially be much more damaging to the Art Institute’s future than the provocative words or artwork of a few of its students.
» January 5th, 2007 Yee Denounces Art Institute for Censorship of Student Press (California Chronicle)SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), the author of the state’s law to prohibit censorship of college student run press, yesterday criticized the administration of the Art Institute of California-San Francisco for confiscating a magazine produced by students and for firing a part-time instructor who complained about the administration’s First Amendment and state law violation.
» January 4th, 2007 Teacher Fired; Accused School of Censorship; He’d Complained About Confiscated Student Magazine (San Francisco Chronicle)SAN FRANCISCO, CA — A part-time instructor at the Art Institute of California-San Francisco has been fired after he objected to the administration’s confiscation of a magazine that students produced as a final project for his course in cultural studies.