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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

Academic Freedom is Not Black and White

Clashes over the limits of academic freedom and political correctness in the educational sphere have triggered generational debates. Is unconditional free speech guaranteed on campus? And what is the definition of free speech? The American historian Richard Hofstader and my uncle, Walter P. Metzger, traced this essential liberty in The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (Columbia University Press, December 1955). In 1956 Henry Veatch wrote in his Indiana Magazine of History review of the book, “Unfortunately, at the present time academic freedom would appear to be one of the poor relations among the various freedoms. For so far as the general public is concerned, any such thing as a claim to academic freedom leaves most people indifferent or, if not indifferent, then mistrustful or even hostile. Worse still, the indifference or mistrust or hostility seems to be compounded of serious misconceptions and misinformation about the nature and purpose of academic freedom.”

These complex issues continue to arise in the academic environment, particularly as they relate to the current expressions of dissent and advocacy. I recently became aware of an interesting debate at East Stroudsburg University (ESU) regarding its “Inclusion Project,” which featured 30 posters on this hot button, sadly politicized issue. It was led by art and design professor David Mazure and philosophy professor T Storm Heter’s “Human Rights and Freedom” class.

On the ESU campus news site, The Stroud Courier, Laura Null reported in early December that the posters were hung throughout campus, displaying various projects on political, racial/ethical, cultural, gender differences, barriers and multiple other topics and issues people face every day, with a public forum held to “discuss these posters and allow for the university to give their explanation of the project.” Out of these 30 posters, two were most discussed, with the first featuring Martin Luther King Jr. standing in front of a crowd on the top half of the poster, alongside the quote “Do you stand up for your rights …” The bottom half of the same poster shows former NFL player Colin Kaepernick kneeling with the quote “… or take a knee?”

Photo by Laura Null

Null reported that this poster “was vandalized and torn down,” and was replaced by the University. “The second poster, created by student Alyssa Gonzales, received the most feedback out of all of the posters,” she writes. The rather primitively styled image shows Donald J. Trump holding a golf club and walking in the opposite direction of a young boy laid dead by the beach, with his head in the water. A hat with the Puerto Rican flag on it sits beside him, and in the background, there is a tiny island with the Puerto Rican flag. One professor stated that “he is not speaking against inclusion or for censorship, but the project of Trump was too graphic with the boy laying dead in the sand.” It was based on the famous news photograph of a young Syrian refugee boy washed up dead on a beach. Despite disagreements, ESU defended that this was a student project, and not about ESU taking a political stance on either side. At the forum some students expressed joy that the campus put their logo on the artwork to show that the students are being heard.

Poster by Alyssa Gonzales / Photo by Laura Null

All the posters were displayed without captions or descriptions. “Heter said that this was to allow for people to get their own interpretation from it,” Null writes. “Then, about three to four days later, captions were put up beside the posters, along with the artist’s intention.”

The Inclusion Poster Project, according to ESU’s Provost Jo Bruno, was inspired by graphic designer Mirko Ilic’s current Tolerance poster exhibition in circulation around the world. The purpose of this project was “to give students a platform to express their own views on inclusion,” notes Heter, adding that the artists selected their own campus space to hang their projects.

Responses coming from students, staff and faculty were mixed, including tweets arguing that the university should not take a stance on political or controversial topics. “Many said that the university’s logo should not have [been] placed in the corner of every poster,” Null states. The college president responded that “[the] logo only means it is an #ESU student project. … not an #ESU position.” The university followed up with an email stating, “While the posters are marked with the ESU logo, they are not a representation of the University’s position, but rather our commitment to students’ freedom of expression in the context of an intellectual and educational dialogue.”

A student adds that while it was an uncomfortable image, “We’re in college, and this is the place where we are supposed to feel uncomfortable.” Null reports that after some students explained that the image of Trump “made them uncomfortable, the artist of the Trump painting revealed herself and spoke out saying, ‘… life’s uncomfortable.'” Artists taking part in the project insisted the work was “meant to invoke conversation.”

“Only time will tell what will become of this ongoing development and the further outcomes of this ESU Inclusion Poster Project,” Null concludes.

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