Civil Liberties

University of Iowa Pulls Anti-Racism Display for Being 'Deeply Offensive'; Head of Journalism School Cheers



A Klu Klux Klan figure on display at the University of Iowa (UI) has sparked some hot debate over free speech, as they do. Growing up in Cincinnati, the KKK Christmas cross downtown was an annual source of brouhaha. But Cincy's KKK display diverges in one major way from the 7-foot sculpted klansman that showed up on a main area of the UI campus December 5: the latter figure was intended as a statement against racism. 

Created by Serhat Tanyolacar, a UI visiting professor and printmaking fellow, the klansman sculpture was decoupaged in newspaper coverage of racial tension and violence throughout the past 100 years. The piece was meant to highlight how America's history of race-based violence isn't really history and "facilitate a dialgoue," as Tanyolacar told university paper The Gazette

But no matter: After several hours, UI officials decided that the display was "deeply offensive" and needed to be removed. "The University of Iowa considers all forms of racism abhorrent and is deeply committed to the principles of inclusion and acceptance," a school memo said, referring to the statue as a form of hate speech.  

Associate journalism professor Lyombe Eko told the campus independent paper that the area where the display went up was a designated public forum, and "in such areas, the university may not practice viewpoint discrimination … No matter how abhorrent it might be to segments of the university community, the work of art is protected by the First Amendment. The University of Iowa can only impose time, place, and manner restrictions on Professor Tanyolacar [the artist], not ban his art on the basis of its content." 

David Ryfe, director of UI's School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UI, has different ideas, however. "If it was up to me, and me alone," he told The Daily Iowan, "I would follow the lead of every European nation and ban this type of speech."

There's a sort of axiom among many journalists that if you want a career in journalism, you shouldn't go to journalism school. And if the head of the University of Iowa's School of Journalism is any indication, that advice holds true as ever today. 

While Ryfe admitted that UI likely made a viewpoint-based distinction, he also pointed out that "there are exceptions, and "this happened on a university campus for one thing." But as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education points out, "speech is not rendered unprotected merely by the fact that it occurs on a public university campus." The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that "the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of 'conventions of decency.'" 

To me, this case provides a good reference point for why we shouldn't curtail freedom of expression even when it comes from despicable groups like the Klu Klux Klan. When you start casting for exceptions to the First Amendment, you never know what kind of other speech—perhaps speech designed to address the very problems you're fighting against—will get caught up in the net.

Unfortunately, the kids and faculty at UI seem to have learned a different lesson: reacting to the statue as art or as a political statement was a reflection of cluelessness, insensitivy, and white privilege. Nic Arp, UI's director of strategic communications for the UI College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, inititally referred to the statue as "public art" in a tweet that has since been deleted. Arp told The Gazette he now knows that doing so was "incredibly offensive" and a function of him "respond(ing) to it first and foremost as a piece of art and not in the way an African American might—as a very real and scary symbol."

Tweeting under the hashtag #BlackHawkeyes, UI students and others have been blasting Tanyolacar's sculpture and the university for initially allowing it. "This person was willing to sacrifice the mental health of all the Black students here for his own gain,"read one such tweet. Yes, his own gain like making a statement about the ongoing terror of racism-based violence. Treachorous.

The university said Tanyolacar is not facing any disciplinary action, but he will be making a formal apology. 

h/t Thaddeus Russell