After the president of Gainesville State College (GSC) removed a professor’s painting from a faculty exhibition, FIRE is asking Gainesville State College to fulfill its moral and legal obligations to uphold free speech and academic freedom on campus. Art instructor Stanley Bermudez’s painting "Heritage?" portrays the Confederate flag in a critical context, which has prompted some complaints from outside the college.
Bermudez’s painting was featured as part of GSC’s 2011 Faculty Biennial Exhibition. It depicts torch-wielding members of the Ku Klux Klan and a lynching superimposed onto a Confederate flag. Venezuelan by birth, Bermudez provided a personal statement to be displayed with the painting, describing his own relationship with the flag. His statement read, in part:
[On] the KKK web site the rebel flag is used often. [This and other] things strengthen my negative view of the Dixie flag and the reason for this painting. This painting represents what I feel and think of when I see the flag. However, after living in Georgia for the last 4 years and talking to several people from Georgia, I have also learned that there is a strong heritage and pride associated with the flag that has nothing to do with the KKK or racism. As is the case in many of the paintings, I do like to show two sides of the coin. I am in the process of creating an accompanying painting of a Rebel flag that shows the image in a more positive manner.
"Heritage?" hung in GSC’s Roy C. Moore Art Gallery for two weeks before it was publicly criticized on the blog Southern Heritage Alerts, which called the painting "despicable" and encouraged people to contact GSC President Martha T. Nesbitt. On January 25, the same day that Southern Heritage Alerts drew attention to the painting, Nesbitt and another colleague entered the Moore Gallery and removed the painting, without consulting or notifying either Bermudez or Beth Sale, Director of the Moore Gallery, ahead of time. According to Bermudez, he did not learn the painting had been removed until that night. He and Sale agreed to leave the nails in place and to leave his artist’s statement in the place of the painting. The next day, at an official reception for the exhibition, the space where "Heritage?" had hung peacefully was empty save for his statement.
Nesbitt and GSC have come under heavy criticism in recent weeks, and the censorship has drawn national media attention. As a result (and as might be predicted as a result of such censorship), "Heritage?" has now been viewed in one form or another by an exponentially greater number of people than otherwise would have seen the work. Further, the controversy inspired a panel discussion at GSC on February 16 where the censorship was discussed with an audience of about 250. Bermudez was one of the panelists, and FIRE was happy to make sure copies of our Guide to Free Speech on Campus were available.
Despite the widespread criticism, however, Nesbitt has defended the censorship. She first did so in a February 2, 2011, statement, arguing in part:
First and foremost, I have to consider the impact of an action on the health and reputation of the institution. In this instance, I made a judgment call that the negative results would outweigh the positive ones.
She followed this up on February 4, remarking:
I stand behind my original decision which was not based on any one group’s agenda, complaint, or the overall content of the painting. It focused solely on the image that has been perceived as aggressively hostile in other areas of the country and other academic institutions-that being the graphic depiction of a lynching.
With free speech still in peril at GSC, FIRE wrote to President Nesbitt yesterday, notifying her that GSC’s censorship was an unconstitutional violation of Bermudez’s rights. As we stated in our letter:
This censorship of an art professor’s work tells the GSC community that certain topics and issues are simply too incendiary for civil dialogue. This notion strikes at the very heart of the academy’s mission. The Supreme Court has held that academic freedom is a "special concern of the First Amendment" and that "[o]ur nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned." Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967).
A democratic society cannot thrive when the authorities decide for the citizens which expression they may and may not see. Yet, FIRE has seen many cases in which the Confederate flag has unacceptably been censored on college campuses, and it is no more acceptable to censor artwork that criticizes the flag than to censor artwork that glorifies it. As the Supreme Court wrote more than sixty years ago in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949), "[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger."
It’s too late now to see "Heritage?" at the Moore Gallery, but it’s not too late for Gainesville State College to recognize its obligations to the First Amendment and academic freedom. FIRE has asked President Nesbitt to notify the GSC community that protected expression will never again be subject to censorship. We will keep Torch readers posted on developments at GSC.