Removal of Student Art Piece Incites Free Speech Concerns in Community

A controversial piece pulled from a Denver, Colorado, student art exhibit earlier this month has incited concerns in the community about free speech violations and sending the wrong message to students when teaching art.

The art exhibit, done as part of a Denver public school outreach program, asked students to “select a master work of art, research it and re-contextualize it.” The pieces displayed at the Wellington Webb Building showcased a variety of student works, ranging from depictions of landscapes to a cartoon depicting a Donald Trump-like figure chasing a Speedy Gonzalez-like mouse.

The controversial piece in question, though, showed a KKK hooded police officer pointing a gun at a young African-American child with his hands raised. In the background an American flag is torn open revealing the confederate flag. Inspired by Goya’s The Third of May 1808 and the 2014 piece A Tale of Two Hoodies by Michael D’Antuono, the student’s piece depicts a timely and controversial conversation being discussed across the nation. “I’m greatly concerned about how this painting portrays the police,” said Denver Chief of Police Robert White in a public press release.

In light of community concerns, the student felt pressured to have the piece removed from the exhibit, the mayor’s office stating, “After learning of the negative impact of her work, the student has asked that it be taken down.”

Whether or not the removal of the piece was voluntary, it has incited new conversations in Denver about free speech and how to approach teaching art to students — specifically pieces that have broach uncomfortable social subjects. “A juvenile has the very same First Amendment protections as an adult,” said Denver attorney, Daniel Recht. “When juveniles express themselves in a public forum, that expression can’t be censored for its content.”

“As adults, we encourage students to use their art as a peaceful form of protest,” noted art teacher Kendra Fleischman. “Here is a student doing just that.”

Although some objectors expressed concern about the subject matter, others argued that the discussions about the piece should have occurred in the classroom first before being put on public display. “I wouldn’t want to squelch the student from saying something,” said Judy Anderson, a local artist and founder of the after-school art program PlateForum. “But that discussion really needs to happen in the classroom first. It’s a good conversation, and it should happen in an arena that protects the student.”

As we have seen in the past, though, even a school venue isn’t necessarily safe from controversy and censorship. From school newspapers and plays, to other art exhibits , students speaking out about topical issues have raised concerns, and in some cases led to internal censorship. As Kendra Fleischman reminds us, though, when it comes to student’s expressing themselves through art, “Don’t hide the work away. Show it, talk about it and do something to help fix society. Censoring this piece will not make the issues go away.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!