Guest Commentary

KU caved over American flag artwork, and free speech is the victim

Josephine Meckseper’s flag artwork
Josephine Meckseper’s flag artwork The Kansas City Star

Last week, University of Kansas officials removed a flag from an art display outside of Spooner Hall. The art featured an American flag with the shape of the country split in two painted over it.

The artwork was intended by its creator Josephine Meckseper as a call for national unity. Gov. Jeff Colyer thought differently, and called university leadership to demand the flag be taken down.

For all of the right’s rhetoric about the First Amendment, it might be surprising to see a Republican governor blatantly calling for censorship. But it’s indicative of how free speech has become embroiled in the left-right culture war, with both sides contributing to its demise. But ultimately, we should consider our First Amendment rights above the realm of political battles.

College campuses like KU’s are often the battlefront for the culture war. In 2017, protesting students at Vermont’s Middlebury College surrounded and shouted down political scientist Charles Murray, who had been invited to speak by a conservative student organization. In April, California State University, Fresno launched (but later dropped) an investigation into professor Randa Jarrar after she criticized former first lady Barbara Bush on the day of her death. Instead of serving as incubators of academic knowledge, universities are cultivating the politicization of free speech.

Both sides contribute to this politicization. New York Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak recently noted that liberals are now “uneasy” about the principle of free speech that they championed for so long. In line with that sentiment, the American Civil Liberties Union took a step back in an internal memo from its decades-long defense of First Amendment rights by shifting away from cases of speech harmful to “marginalized communities.” Not to be outdone by his opponents on the left, President Donald Trump disdains the free press, and even questioned whether liberal news outlets should keep their licenses. About 50 percent of Republicans agree with the president that liberal news media are the “enemy of the American people.”

Conservatives and liberals alike are more interested in the culture war than free speech. Political theorist David D’Amato described the culture war as “not actually contests between competing ideologies” but how people perceive their “place on the cultural map.” When people identify with the left or the right, they expose themselves only to views that confirm their beliefs. Their underlying philosophy becomes less important than being against the other group. It’s the mentality of the mob, the tribe and the party.

This cultural process kicks in whenever policy positions are championed by one side. For example, when you think of a free speech activist today, you may imagine a Trump supporter in a red ball cap railing against political correctness. However accurate or inaccurate that cultural perception may be, it has helped taint free speech as a political value. When you begin to associate free speech with a group of people you don’t like, you are more likely to see it as an irrelevant means rather than the ultimate end.

The culture war mentality also explains why many on the right have left free speech behind. It’s unacceptable to the president and other Republicans for liberals to use their media platforms freely. This shifts the debate from the moral case for free speech to protecting the symbols that represent either side, like an American flag. If anyone targets the symbols of our tribe, what should happen? According to people like Gov. Colyer, free speech goes out and censorship comes in.

No party should have that power in this country. The ability to express an opinion openly through art, speech or writing is the essence of being an American. When we give elected officials the power to silence our opponents, we give our opponents the power to silence us after the next election. Neither university administrators nor the governor should be dictating the speech of artists in Kansas or elsewhere. We used to understand this.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1943: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” When Republicans or Democrats use their office for censorship, we should hold them to high standards set by the Constitution, not our own interpretations of orthodoxy. Our fragile right to free speech can still be redeemed.

Matt Liles is an international relations student at the University of Texas at Austin and a writer for Young Voices, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps cultivate young thought leaders.