In a disturbing act of censorship, Texas State Rep. Boris Miles personally removed works of art from an exhibit sponsored by The Moratorium Project (a group opposed to the death penalty) and displayed in the Texas Capitol Building in Austin. The exhibition was part of an initiative to hold “public purpose” exhibits at the Capitol.

Some of the artwork depicted scenes of execution, not something unexpected in a project aiming to provoke debate about capital punishment. However, Rep. Miles found two works offensive and, breaking procedural rules, personally removed them. The works depicted, respectively, a lynching and a man tied to an electric chair.

In a statement, Rep. Miles insisted that the issue was not one of either art appreciation or death penalty viewpoint, but rather one of “sense and sensibility.” The Texas State Capitol, he stated, was a place where all Texas citizens should feel “comfortable and welcome.” He went on to state that art which may be considered questionable, offensive or simply thought provoking did not belong in a public, governmental venue supported by taxpayers.

Unfortunately, Rep. Miles misses the point. As a government official, he should know that state suppression of free expression, especially that which may be controversial or offensive, is a violation of First Amendment principles. Regardless of Mr. Miles personal beliefs about thought-provoking art and its place in the public domain, he, like all of us and our government as a whole, is bound by the provisions and principles established by our Constitution.

By the very nature of its subject, art addressing an important public issue might frequently run into controversy – especially if the public issue is subject to debate. It is commendable that the state capitol has opened its space for such exhibitions. It is, however, highly disturbing that an elected official should be allowed impose his personal views on the whole community.

We urge the State Preservation Board, which governs displays in the building, to create a complaints procedure through which both elected representatives and visitors may voice their disagreement with a piece of art and receive a response. Such a procedure would assure that decisions are made with due respect for the Constitution and the democratic process and that no public official usurps the power to decide what people should be allowed to see, think or debate.