Wellesley students: Please censor art to protect our feelings

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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Wellesley College near Boston is suffering through a bout of controversy over, of all things, a sculpture. Artist Tony Matelli’s very realistic The Sleepwalker, which depicts a balding, slightly pudgy man in briefs sleepwalking outdoors, is evidently causing a stir on the elite women’s college campus. It’s even produced a Change.org petition (signed by more than 700 people as of this writing) asking the Wellesley administration to remove the sculpture on the basis that it is “a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community.”

As far as sexualized images on campus go, The Sleepwalker rates pretty close to the bottom of the pile. The University of Tennessee is about to host a Sex Week, and Harvard University (not far from Wellesley) has one too. Sex magazines featuring not-safe-for-work photos of college students have been present for years on campuses like Wesleyan, Harvard, Vassar, and Boston University. Northwestern University had an incident in which a professor invited his human sexuality class to stay after the scheduled time in order to watch a couple use a sexual device fashioned from an electric reciprocating saw on one another.

Sexual images are hardly in short supply on campus. Yet for some reason, Matelli’s sculpture has drawn a disproportionate amount of ire, supposedly because of its potential to “trigger” post-traumatic stress disorder in women who have been victims of sexual assault. “Triggering thoughts” are mentioned in the Change.org petition, and as the Boston Globe reported:

Bridget Schreiner, a Wellesley freshman, said Tuesday afternoon that she had already signed the Change.org petition that was posted late Monday night.

Schreiner said she felt “freaked out” the first time she saw the statue, thinking for a moment that a real, nearly naked person was lingering near the campus center.

“This could be a trigger for students who have experienced sexual assault,” she said.

The idea that speakers have a responsibility to work to avoid “triggering” memories of victims of sexual assault has lately gained currency, especially online. This has led to an increasing number of blog posts and articles about sexual assault or other topics being labeled with a “trigger warning” intended to give victims a heads-up so that they can avoid reading the article (although some believe that such warnings may be counterproductive or, indeed, a cynical form of sensationalism).

Authors of controversial pieces are certainly free to do their best to warn people away if they wish to avoid causing emotional discomfort. But demanding that others conform to this newly minted norm is a prescription for censorship of the most transparent kind. As the Supreme Court wrote in Terminiello v. Chicago (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. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.

Though it is of course their right to state their opposition and encourage others to do so, many Wellesley students on the Change.org petition ignore this critical function of free expression and express their desire for censorship of Matelli’s work in ways that would not have sounded out of place in the Victorian era. One student, arguing for the removal of the sculpture, writes that “the responses that this statue is invoking are largely ones of discomfort, anxiety, shock and disgust.” Another derides it as a “publicity stunt,” saying “a more appropriate replacement could have been much more successful and less unsettling.” It’s not hard to imagine them expressing these views at Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner before riding off on their penny-farthings. (I’m not the only one who thinks so.)

Others make statements that seem to indicate that it is the whiteness and maleness of the subject of the sculpture that is the problem. One talks about “the power of the nearly nude, white, male body to disturb and discomfit,” while another complains that “Mr. Matelli comes from a place of great privilege which has apparently been used to place a sculpture of the white male body on campus. I find it weirdly invasive.” Readers can be forgiven for finding this explicit hostility towards a given race and sex to itself be a bit discomfiting.

To its credit, Wellesley has so far resisted the calls to remove Matelli’s sculpture, with the director of Wellesley’s Davis Museum responding to the petition by noting that “Art provokes dialogue, and discourse is the core of education.” She’s right, of course. It remains to be seen, though, whether Wellesley will continue to refrain from removing or otherwise hiding the artwork as the backlash grows.