Campus police launched an investigation, and the university informed
Valdez that she faced suspension or expulsion. Winthrop did not commission Valdez’s installation, and was under no requirement to leave it on display, but the First Amendment forbids the university from punishing Valdez because some students found her artwork offensive. With FIRE’s help, Valdez was cleared
of the charges. However, had Winthrop not let outrage guide its decision-making, Valdez wouldn’t have had to fear that her educational career was coming to an end in the first place.
What lessons can we learn from KU, Salem State, the University of Iowa, Winthrop, and the many other campuses where offense and controversy—not artistic sensibility—dictated what may be displayed?
The first lesson: The image many universities are most willing to protect is their own. Universities are happy to offer flowery promises of freedom of speech, but less interested in backing them up. In an era where it can take only minutes for a minor controversy to turn into a hashtag, universities too often fall prey to the notion that what matters most is appeasing anger—and ending headaches—rather than protecting expressive rights that the university is morally, and often legally, bound to uphold.
The second: Controversies, and the predictable surrender that follows, happen to both artwork that inspires us and artwork that disgusts us. The challenge we all face is supporting the right to artistic expression in both of those cases. Too often, we forget that a defense of the right to deface a flag is a defense of the right to raise one, too.
When administrators succumb to censorship demands, they do exactly what they shouldn’t: encourage the idea that the only artwork worth seeing is that which is deemed palatable to the most powerful or the most sensitive among us. Art should not need to abide by a subjective standard of respectfulness to be allowed on campus. Universities, and the people who run them, must develop the courage to stand up for expression in the face of outrage. But it’s on all of us to stop providing the demands for censorship that schools are so willing to bow down to. Until then, unfortunately, art will keep coming down.