Pentacrest display ignites free speech advocates


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A heated debate at the University of Iowa has grown over a 7-foot robed Ku Klux Klan figure that stood on the Pentacrest Dec. 5 for nearly four hours.

The display, portraying newspaper articles depicting coverage of racial tensions, riots, and killings dating from 1908 to 2010, was removed after UI officials deemed it “deeply offensive” to members of the community.

In a statement issued to the students, staff, and faculty, the university wrote, “The University of Iowa considers all forms of racism abhorrent and is deeply committed to the principles of inclusion and acceptance.”

As a result, the fear of squelched freedom of speech and academic freedom has emerged among UI faculty members and students.

“The fundamental principle is that the Pentacrest is a designated public forum,” wrote Lyombe Eko, a UI associate professor of journalism, in an email regarding the display. “In such areas, the university may not practice viewpoint discrimination.”

Viewpoint discrimination occurs when officials discriminate against speakers based on their views.

“No matter how abhorrent it might be to segments of the university community, the work of art is protected by the First Amendment,” Eko said. “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.”

UI Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin said the assistant vice president for student life normally reviews these requests. He said at times an ad hoc committee is assembled, depending on the request.

The Pentacrest, as defined by the UI Operations Manual, forms the core of central campus and is frequently used to exercise the freedom to express dissent by lawful means, including peaceable assembly and petitions to authorities.

This use of the Pentacrest has been encouraged and facilitated by the university, but individuals or groups must request its use by submitting a completed form to the Vice President for Student Life.
The artist of the display on Dec. 5 — UI Visiting Assistant Professor and Grant Wood Art Colony Printmaking Fellow Serhat Tanyolacar — did not acquire the necessary permit.

Staff from UI Facilities Management also removed chalk drawings and phrases from the Pentacrest sidewalks Monday morning that were drawn by a group called Black Hawkeyes, along with allies and community members, to “take back” the Pentacrest because of the display.

Rocklin said this was because chalking is not permitted on the Pentacrest, only on the sidewalks surrounding Hubbard Park and the T. Anne Cleary walkway.

“The university likely made a viewpoint-based distinction, and according to R.A.V. v. the city of St. Paul, the court generally cannot make such distinctions,” said David Ryfe, the director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “But there are exceptions; this happened on a university campus for one thing.”

Ryfe said the Supreme Court allows all sorts of content-based distinctions made in the law, and the potential restriction of speech at hand depends on whether one believes hate speech is a legitimate part of the freedom of speech.

Though the message of the artwork, Tanyolacar said, was meant to highlight the truth of racial disparity that existed during the era of the Ku Klux Klan and still exists today, many interpreted it as threatening hate speech.

“If it was up to me, and me alone, I would follow the lead of every European nation and ban this type of speech,” Ryfe said.

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