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Manfull: Removal of KKK statue misguided

BY ERIN MANFULL | DECEMBER 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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It seems I’ve been paying a lot of attention in my Media Law class this semester because the second a 7-foot tall Ku Klux Klan statue was erected and than hastily removed from the Pentacrest, I believed there was a violation of the artist’s First Amendment rights.

In an email sent out to students on Dec. 5, Tom Rocklin, the vice president for Student Life, said that although “the UI respects freedom of speech, the university is also responsible for ensuring that public discourse is respectful and sensitive.”

The problem with this statement is that the First Amendment was designed to protect unwanted speech, and clearly a large statue of a Klansman is unwanted on a college campus, regardless of the original intent of the artist.

Turkish-born UI printmaking fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor Serhat Tanyolacar, told The Daily Iowan that the intent of the statue, covered in newspapers depicting racial violence, wasn’t about racism itself; rather, it was constructed to encourage discussions on racism.

But the university and student community didn’t think this statue was appropriate — especially because of the recent controversies and trauma surrounding the African-American community in the wake of Ferguson and Staten Island and the protests that have ensued since.

I completely agree that this statue may have been insensitive at first glance, but there really isn’t a law prohibiting the artist from exhibiting his piece of art. In an email Media Law Associate Professor Lyombe Eko sent to our class, he informed us that the only mistake the artist made was not asking permission from the university. Because the artist didn’t ask permission, the university has the right to remove anything on campus property. But justifying it as a “racist” act, as Rocklin did, sets a bad precedent that ends up violating First Amendment rights, particularly because the artist’s only intent was to initiate dialogue about racism.

The simple fact that “the right of the speaker is more important than the feelings of the listener” is completely applicable to this situation. Because the Pentacrest is a designated public forum, the university is not legally allowed to discriminate based solely on content. Instead of denying the art piece, the university should have imposed time, place, and manner regulations on the artist himself.

This means that the university could have told Tanyolacar where, when, and what to do with his art piece, but it does not have the constitutional right to ban the statue because it has unpleasant content.

The decision that “universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment” was determined in Papish v. University of Missouri, and the UI is no exception to this. Although I can understand that administrators don’t want students or faculty to feel uncomfortable, there is a line it cannot cross in terms of basic human rights.

As American citizens, we are the exception to the much of the world in terms of the law and our First Amendment rights. Not every nation is entitled to protect the free speech of its citizens, so when our First Amendment rights are squandered in America, there is cause for concern. What’s even more concerning is that President Sally Mason sent a follow up email on Sunday apologizing for not acting soon enough in the removal of the statue. Although it seems she has every intention of making those on campus feel comfortable and welcome, she can’t restrain people from expressing their First Amendment rights on the Pentacrest.

Because, in the end, if she’s going to prohibit an artist from protesting racial ideology, shouldn’t she also tell the preacher on the Pentacrest to stop telling women we’re going to hell for pre-marital sex?


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