Ms. Jill Myers, Principal
Montrose High School
P.O. Box 5000
Montrose, CO   81402
jmyers@mcsd.k12.co.us

 

Re: Student Artwork Display

Dear Principal Myers-

I am writing on behalf of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), an alliance of 50 national non-profit organizations united in defense of free expression, regarding the recent removal of student artwork from display in the school hallways.  We believe the censorship of this work not only violates student’s free speech rights but also goes against key educational principles.

As reported to us, the work consisted of original cartoons created by the students in Ann Marie Fleming’s Intro Art I class.  For the past seven years, Ms. Fleming has displayed this artwork in the school hallways without complaint.   However, this year, we understand you chose to remove three of these works you found “inappropriate” without discussing the issue with the teacher or notifying the students. In addition, we understand that these works, created on paper, were damaged by the rough treatment they received when torn down.

The works themselves sound fairly innocuous.  It is rather hard to imagine that a cartoon  featuring a rabbit nailed to a wall and labeled as G.W. Bush with a dialog balloon reading “Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter” could be construed as promoting violence. No less arbitrary is the judgment that a cartoon referencing Martians, Earth holes and the womb is “indecent.” As to the use of the word expression “you suck at” in the third cartoon, this is, whether formal etiquette would allow it or not, a widely used expression today, especially in the schoolyard.

It is long established that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 393 U.S. 503, 506, (1969). While we recognize that school administrators have the authority to limit student expression when it could impede the educational process, it would be very difficult to prove that this artwork would have lead to any significant disruption. Moreover, the work does not violate any of the restrictive guidelines set by the school, including the ban on references to drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. Some school administrators may have found the work personally distasteful, but that is not a legitimate reason for stifling student expression.  Any attempt to “eliminate everything that is objectionable…will leave public schools in shreds.”  McCollum v. Board of Educ., 333 U.S. 203, 235 (1948).

Furthermore, the decision to remove the students’ work without any advance discussion with the students themselves, while damaging it in the process, was educationally unsound and sends a noxious message to your students: if you disagree with something, just eliminate it, tear it down, silence it. This message completely contradicts the goal of an educational institution to foster informed citizens who value free speech, democratic dialog and cultural tolerance. Even worse, damaging the artwork promotes resentment on the part of the students and teachers who work so hard only to see the fruits of their effort trampled and disrespected.

We urge you to apologize to the students for the manner in which the work was removed and open a dialog with them and their teacher about the message of the cartoons. After the students have a chance to explain their work and respond to your concerns, we hope a conclusion will be reached that allows the cartoons to be displayed once again. We trust you will turn this into a positive educational opportunity.

If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at 212-807-6222 ext. 23.

 

Very truly yours,

 

Svetlana Mintcheva
Director
Arts Program

 

Dr. George Voorhis
Superintendent
Montrose County School District
P.O. Box 10500
Montrose, CO 81402
gvoorhis@mcsd.k12.co.us

Mr. Scot Brown, Assistant Principal
Montrose High School
P.O. Box 5000
Montrose, CO  81402
sbrown@mcsd.k12.co.us

Mr. Lyle Wright
Activities Director
Montrose High School
Montrose, CO  81402
lwright@mcsd.k12.co.us