Free speech advocates are outraged over the University of Kansas’ decision to remove a controversial American flag following complaints from Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and other Republican politicians that the public art piece was disrespectful.
“It is unfortunate that the University of Kansas appears to have bowed to pure political pressure in its display of the art installation, ’Untitled (Flag 2),’” Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said in a statement Thursday morning. “You do not need to like the art, or agree with the political sentiments it expresses, or even believe that it expresses any political idea at all to recognize that the artwork is protected by the First Amendment.”
An American flag marked with black paint had flown atop a flagpole outside KU’s Spooner Hall since July 5 as part of a public arts project sponsored by the New York City-based arts nonprofit Creative Time.
The flag’s creator, German artist Josephine Mecksepter, had depicted a black-and-white sock and a split United States using a drip painting technique. She said her piece was intended as a call to unite a deeply polarized country.
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But the flag was taken down Wednesday hours after Colyer and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach called for its removal. Colyer — who faces Kobach in August’s GOP primary — had called the piece a “disrespectful display of a desecrated American flag,” and other conservatives, including Kansas congressional candidate Steve Watkins, expressed disapproval.
KU Chancellor Doug Girod said in a statement that safety concerns prompted university officials to move the flag to an exhibit in KU’s Spencer Museum of Art. He did not elaborate on what those safety concerns were.
Kubic said the decision “smacks of censorship.”
“The elected officials in question, including Gov. Colyer and Sec. Kobach, have been very clear that they want the art censored because of the political statement it makes, and the way in which it makes that statement,” he said. “That is an affront to the spirit of the First Amendment, and the values for which the flag stands.”
Other free speech advocates released statements as well.
Peter Bonilla, vice president of programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, called for the university not to take down the flag and stand “apart from the numerous institutions that have censored artistic expression.”
“The First Amendment doesn’t exist to protect politically popular speech,” Bonilla said. “It exists to protect the speech likeliest to stir controversy, and it is a crucial check against the power of the state to silence dissenting voices.”
Copies of Meckseper’s work are simultaneously being displayed across the United States. It is the last in a series of flags created for “Pledges of Allegiances,” in which Creative Time commissioned 16 artists to create flags highlighting various causes.
She has described the piece as a collage of an American flag and fragments of one of her earlier works, “Goodbye to Language.”
The Spencer Museum of Art and KU Commons inside Spooner hosted the privately funded project and displayed 15 other flags on the Spooner flagpole since November. Meckseper’s flag was expected to fly until July 31.
Creative Time issued a statement Wednesday night after the flag had been taken down.
“Art has a responsibility to drive hard conversations,” the statement read. “’Pledges of Allegiance’ was begun to generate dialogue and bring attention to the pressing issues of the day. The right to freedom of speech is one of our nation’s most dearly held values. It is also under attack. We are proud to stand by artists who express themselves. Today’s events illustrate the same divisions in our country that the series has confronted head-on.”
On Thursday, Colyer spoke about the incident on Todd Starne’s Fox News radio show.
“I think everyone is sorry that this happened but I think its indefensible that it did,” Colyer said when asked if KU had shown “remorse” in conversations with the governor. “I’m glad this is over with.”
He said he saw the situation as something to learn from.
Soon after Colyer’s segment, Kobach, who is running against Colyer in the the August Republican primary, issued a statement condemning Colyer for accepting the display of the flag in an indoor exhibit as a solution.