Turmoil was contrived a month ago in the wake of a University of Iowa professor’s artistic expression. The particulars — the university stifling speech lest some students declare themselves “uncomfortable,” and hearty student advocacy of the authoritarian clampdown — do not speak well of the state of free speech among UI’s academic neophytes.
A well-intentioned opponent of race hatred, UI faculty member and Grant Wood Art Colony Printmaking Fellow Serhat Tanyolacar wanted to contribute to the ongoing discussion of racial issues, a fine ambition. He fashioned an effigy resembling a klansman, one covered with screen-printed newspaper clippings telling of monstrous killings and other crimes committed by the loathsome hooded vermin.
On December 5, Tanyolacar placed it on the University of Iowa’s pentacrest, a public area. The night before, an anti-police violence rally had been held there.
Tanyolacar’s reasoning may have gone something like this: Who looking upon the effigy, wrapped in black-and-white accounts of the KKK’s historic immorality and viciousness, would not understand the inherent condemnatory message? UI was after all a place of higher learning, of untrammeled intellectualism. Not a venue where slack-jawed observers are taken by the hand, and guided patiently through explanatory context.
But within mere hours, the visiting art professor was himself instructed in the intolerance and liberal authoritarianism of the 21st-Century American university system.
Some students, bringing to mind Nat Hentoff’s Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee, contacted university authorities to demand that the effigy be removed.
(The university’s official excuse was that Tanyolacar had not secured pernission to place his art. But the previous evening’s rally on the same spot also had been staged without prior approval.)
The work was quickly removed — by the artist, himself. He stressed that he was an ally in the anti-racism cause. And he did not wish to offend anyone. Though he had wanted to spotlight the reality of hate-group activity in modern culture, he removed his work.
But in the era of “masters of the fancied slight,” to borrow a line from Michael Kinsley, when a speaker strays from the group-approved script, withdrawing the disputed expression is not sufficient.
“It was a terrorist attack!” a third year doctoral student at the University’s Department of Religious Studies declared to a reporter. “I haven’t actually slept!” (“Frustration over KKK statue: UI students share concerns at public forum,” December 9, Cedar Rapids Gazette)
Also at that forum, a freshman actually said, “We want to stop something like this from happening again, and for people to understand it’s not right.”
(“Terrorist attack?” Free speech “not right,” and needing to be “stopped” on a university campus?)
According to the Gazette account, students insisted that artists consider not only their own honest intent, but that a wholly innocent work might strike some unknown third party as “hate speech” if not presented within some sanctifying context.
“Where do we draw the line between art as a sociopolitical statement and triggering material for shock value?” asked forum attendee and junior Nailah Roberts, not explaining why any such demarcation should exist.
Unfortunately, such profound student ignorance of unhindered expression’s crucial worth in citizens’ learning, evolving, and fairly charting a nation’s democratic course enjoyed abundant representation in the University of Iowa’s administration.
“Dear Members of the University Community,” a statement released by UI President Sally Mason, was issued on December 7th. And it made clear that free speech was not at all important to the university.
“The goal of the University of Iowa as a higher-education institution, has always been to provide an environment where all members of our campus community feel safe and Friday, we failed,” it began.
Remember that to Mason’s mind, a university’s primary mission has nothing to do with expanding students’ horizons or unbounded intellectual inquiry. The priority is feeling safe, meaning a university is a baby-sitting service than anything else.
“That display immediately caused Black students and community members to feel terrorized and to fear for their safety,” Mason continued. “Our students tell us that this portrayal made them feel unwelcomed and that they lost trust in the University of Iowa.”
The university president officially apologized that a UI artist had spoken freely. “I urge any student who was negatively affected by this incident who feels a need for support to consider contacting the University Counseling Service.”
For his part, Tanyolacar issued an apology on December 9, in which he introduced himself and explained his work:
“My name is Serhat Tanyolacar,” he wrote. “And it’s clear that people do not know who I am. My display on the Pentacrest last Friday has caused people to assume that I am a racist … I am an artist, but first and foremost the father of a mixed-race eight-year-old boy. I met my son’s mother when she was stationed in Turkey 14 years ago, and although I had researches on [sic] race relations in America before my child was born, I got to see first-hand what his life might be like when we moved to Clarksville, Tennessee … Before moving to Iowa City I lived in Florida where Trayvon Martin was killed. After the court decisions on Michael Brown and Eric Garner I had even more reason to make an immediate work where I wanted to facilitate a dialogue.”
The art professor went on to detail previous anti-racism work in which he’d taken part. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Artists Respond” was a St.Louis exhibition. Since the death of Michael Brown, he explained, “I have been able to travel to St. Louis and create dialogues with community leaders, journalists, and artists … I want to continue these dialogues and support peoples’ fight against injustice and racism in America.”
Now, since Tanyolacar has a deeper, more accomplished background in important anti-racism activism, you might suppose that his detractors, having been put right (as well as feeling stupid for not having got the effigy’s message in the beginning) would hasten to extend olive branches.
The stunning thing is that doesn’t appear to have happened.
That UI boasts an active and vocal anti-racism student contingent is a laudable thing. Battling the residual effects of our nation’s discriminatory past is indeed important and necessary to creating a climate in which each citizen can participate equally, and enjoy the benefits inherent in freedom.
But somewhere along the line, many seem to have forgotten that free speech is “the First Freedom” for good reason: Without the liberty to communicate openly, including voicing unpopular or controversial thoughts and concepts, no other cause dear to us can be advocated.
Always remember that the First Amendment’s protection was of incalculable help to historic movements promoting greater recognition of constitutional rights. There aren’t numerous free speech rights, one for each point of view. There is but one, and every time it is weakened for any speaker, it is made less reliable for us and ideas we support.
Didn’t universities used to teach that?
Previously on the staffs of Rockabilly and Pin Up America magazines, DC Larson has contributed freelance pieces to Goldmine, No Depression, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, Blue Suede News, and Dissident Voice, among others. His newspaper credits include USA Today, the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. He helped found the Iowa Green Party, and was in 2004 Iowa coordinator for Ralph Nader’s independent presidential campaign.