Civil liberties groups now demanding that KU put flag art back on flag pole

photo by: Kim Callahan

"Untitled (Flag 2)" by Josephine Meckseper is displayed Friday, July 13, 2018, in Spencer Museum of Art's Jack & Lavon Brosseau Center for Learning. The artwork, which was inspired by the American flag, came to the University of Kansas as part of a nationwide public art project and was removed Wednesday by university officials from its outdoor display after outcry from Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and other political figures.

Three civil liberties groups have come together to demand the University of Kansas return a controversial artwork to its original display on the KU campus.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released a statement Monday asking that “Untitled (Flag 2)” be restored to its former location on a flag pole outside KU’s Spooner Hall. The piece, which drew criticism from Gov. Jeff Colyer and other Kansas conservatives for its resemblance to an altered American flag, was moved to KU’s Spencer Museum of Art amid outcry last week.

FIRE wasn’t happy with that decision and is now joining with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition Against Censorship to issue its own demand.

“Censorship won last week, but today, we’re fighting back for the First Amendment,” Will Creeley, FIRE’s senior vice president for legal and public advocacy, said in a news release. “The law is clear: The government can’t censor artistic expression just because powerful people don’t like it.”

“Artistic freedom is especially important at our public colleges and universities, and we’re proud to stand with the ACLU of Kansas and the National Coalition Against Censorship in its defense,” Creeley said.

A joint letter from the three organizations criticizes KU Chancellor Douglas Girod’s “acquiescing to politicians’ calls for censorship,” as FIRE described it. FIRE’s press release said the letter was sent by mail and electronically to the chancellor’s office.

“By so doing, you have sent a clear message to the KU community and would-be censors that the institution will capitulate to complaints regarding the content and viewpoint of expression on campus,” the letter said.

The letter also expressed “suspicion” at Girod’s assertion last week that “public safety concerns” had prompted the university’s decision to relocate the piece by German-born artist Josephine Meckseper. The letter’s author pointed out that Girod’s statement “did not address the severity of such concerns, the existence of any actual threats nor the credibility of such threats.”

“If KU has legitimate ‘public safety concerns,’ it should tell the public what they are,” Creeley said. “Would-be censors have learned that an angry phone call might be all it takes to revoke the First Amendment at the University of Kansas. Successful tactics will be repeated, and KU has a non-negotiable obligation to stand up for free speech.”

The Lawrence Journal-World reported that University of Kansas police took at least one report last Wednesday of a threat at the Spencer Museum. Someone threatened a person by phone, according to the department’s online crime report log. Details on the incident have been scarce, however, and it’s still unclear if the threat was directly related to the outcry over the artwork.

When asked how the university was responding to FIRE’s request Monday, KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson referred to a statement released last Friday by Girod and interim Provost Carl Lejuez.

In the statement, the two leaders said they were writing “to reaffirm our full commitment to ensuring the exhibit remains in the Spencer Museum through its scheduled run,” which ends July 31.

Meckseper’s artwork is the last of 16 flags created for the “Pledges of Allegiance” project, commissioned by New York City-based nonprofit Creative Time. The university is one of 11 institutions at 13 locations across the country participating in “Pledges of Allegiance,” brought to KU by the Spencer Museum of Art and The Commons. All of the flags in the exhibit had flown from a pole — specifically erected for the project — in front of Spooner Hall up until the outcry over Meckseper’s piece.


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