This week’s decision by University of Kansas officials to relocate a flag-based art exhibit was made hastily under political pressure, and it reflects a betrayal of the university’s mission to promote learning and debate.
A flag spotted with black paint was first raised on the campus on July 5. It was part of a months-long arts project called “Pledges of Allegiance,” an exhibition that invites people to think about their flag and their nation.
It doesn’t appear that the piece initially generated serious controversy among students or faculty.
Then the politicians stepped in. “I’m sorry that a Kansan would deface our symbol of strength, unity, and patriotism,” wrote Steve Watkins, a Republican candidate for Congress. (The artist isn’t from Kansas, and she said her flag reflected a deeply polarized country.)
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach called for the flag’s removal. Gov. Jeff Colyer quickly chimed in with a similar statement. All demonstrated a regrettable misunderstanding of the role of speech and art in Kansas, particularly on a college campus.
Of course, the Republicans’ embrace of the flag and dramatic demands for the art exhibit to come down conveniently played to their base and just happened to coincide with the final stretch of the campaign leading up to the Aug. 7 GOP primary.
Politics aside, the best art necessarily challenges us to think about the world. Free speech and public art, free of political interference, are absolutely essential to seeking truth.
In fact, the same flag was flying in downtown Kansas City Thursday without incident.
Millions of Americans see the U.S. flag as a sacred symbol, and many are uncomfortable with a display that doesn’t reflect their understanding of the banner. We understand that unease.
But the flag’s power doesn’t come from what it is, but from what it represents: Americans’ profound faith in free speech and free thought. That’s why candidates paint stars and stripes on their campaign vehicles. It’s why some fly the flag upside down, in protest. It’s why artists use the flag as a backdrop for commentary.
The U.S. flag, like the country it represents, is more than strong enough to accommodate those displays. And the law is clear: Such uses are protected by the First Amendment.
That’s why we’re most disappointed in University of Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod, who issued a statement Wednesday saying the disputed flag would be moved inside the Spencer Museum of Art because of “public safety” concerns.
It isn’t clear what threat the flag posed to public safety. But it undoubtedly imperiled financial security: The Kansas Legislature and the new governor will control the university’s purse strings. Private donations might also have been at risk.
Financial concerns cannot be ignored. But chancellors are hired to make tough decisions, and protecting freedom of expression and thought are the most important priorities of all. Girod should not have crumpled in the face of political pressure to relocate the flag.
This incident should be reviewed by the Kansas Board of Regents, or a faculty committee, or students, or all three. The worst message KU could send is that the university placates politicians or shrinks from criticism.
Kansans who think about this incident will undoubtedly agree. KU is a treasure because it embraces free debate, not because it hides controversy in the back room.