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Apr 27, 2006 3:06 pm

Victory at Penn State

Inside Higher Ed reports that Penn State president Graham Spanier has overturned a decision by the School of Visual Arts to censor student Josh Stulman's art show on the grounds that the art (which is critical of Palestinian terrorism) conflicted with the school's"diversity" policy. The director of the art school had justified his decision on the grounds that the art school “is committed to promoting cultural diversity and assuring opportunities for democratic dialogue within the context of its classrooms and its exhibition spaces. I believe that Josh’s work does not promote those tenets.”

At Volokh, David Bernstein has several excellent posts on the controversy--which is another reminder of the too-often need for off-campus publicity to be used to uphold free exchange of ideas on campus.

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Alan Allport - 4/27/2006

... where no act of censorship is complete without some pompous cant from the censor about how they're really "assuring opportunities for democratic dialogue".

Timothy James Burke - 4/27/2006

I think KC summarizes it well. If the whole show was something like, "Artists Who Criticize the Palestinians", you might wonder if there was an openness to other kinds of expression. But when it's basically just a senior art show, it's not legit for a faculty director to pick through it and exclude work by seniors who are otherwise entitled to exhibit but with whom with which the director disagrees politically. I thought this was a pretty open-and-shut case.

Robert KC Johnson - 4/27/2006

From my understanding of the issue (which comes only from Bernstein's posts and the Penn State newspaper articles):

The Art School seems to have a policy of showing qualified students' art work on a rotating basis. (It's not exactly clear to me how students get chosen, but it sounds like the opportunity goes to all senior student artists, who get to show their work in the art building.) In the guidelines for the display (which the college newspaper reproduced), there is no content restriction on the topic of the art.

Despite the policy, in this case, the director of the program imposed a content restriction--ie, he didn't like the message, and therefore the student couldn't show his work. If the art program had a policy of, in effect, saying that student work on certain topics couldn't be displayed (ie, can't have anything on controversial contemporary issues), or that if a, say, pro-choice exhibit were shown, the student artist would have to find a pro-life exhibit to balance, the director's action would have been perfectly proper. But that wasn't the policy. The policy was content neutral, until the director didn't like the content.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/27/2006

Correct me if I'm mistaken, but haven't you been critical of public forums on campuses that represent only one side of heated controversial issues -- a pro-Palestinian panel of speakers at Columbia, for example. How would a pro-Israel art exhibit at Penn State different from that?

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