Organization names KU as one of the worst universities for free speech, cites removal of flag art, social media policy

photo by: Kim Callahan

A man takes down an altered American flag in a public art display in front of KU's Spooner Hall, Wednesday, July 11, 2018.

Updated at 9:20 a.m. Wednesday

The removal of an art installation featuring a modified American flag has made the University of Kansas one of the worst colleges or universities in the country for protecting the freedom of speech, according to a national advocacy organization.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, on Tuesday put KU on its list of 10 institutions of higher learning that it says are the worst at protecting rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

In response to the listing, Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a spokeswoman for KU, said, “The university is a marketplace of ideas, and although we understand that some disagree with particular kinds of speech, we strongly affirm the right to express it.”

FIRE is a nonprofit that aims to protect the rights of individuals at universities and colleges. Along with the freedom of speech, the organization focuses on equality, religious liberty and other rights.

The organization specifically cited KU’s decision in July 2018 to move an outdoor art installation of a modified American flag following then-Gov. Jeff Colyer’s call for its removal from campus. Other Republican politicians and candidates also demanded removal.

As the Journal-World previously reported, the art piece known as “Untitled (Flag 2),” created by German-born artist Josephine Meckseper, was installed on the KU campus near The Commons at Spooner Hall. A week after it was installed, the university cited “safety concerns” as the reason for its removal.

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 by university officials from its outdoor display after outcry from Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and other political figures.

The piece was taken from its outdoor flagpole and installed inside the Spencer Museum of Art on KU’s campus.

“In the end, the art finished its run inside KU’s Spencer Museum of Art, a signal to would-be censors that an angry phone call might be all it takes to censor art at the University of Kansas,” FIRE said of the university’s decision.

FIRE also noted that the university’s actions did not agree with its statement that it “values differences, free expression and free debate as it is vital for a community of scholars and the creation of new knowledge,” which is listed on the KU website.

In addition to the flag-art incident, the report cited KU’s “restrictive” social media policies, noting that in 2014 the Kansas Board of Regents “approved one of the most restrictive social media policies in the country for its faculty at all member institutions, including KU. The policy is still on the books today, and it remains a looming threat to faculty free speech rights.”

One part of the social media policy states that the university has the authority to discipline an employee for speech “when made pursuant to the employee’s official duties” that is “contrary to the best interests of the employer.”

Along with the University of Wisconsin system and Syracuse University, KU is one of the most well-known universities on the list. The other seven institutions on the list are Alabama A&M University, Dixie State University, Georgetown University Qatar, Liberty University, Plymouth State University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of North Alabama.

Although private universities are not required to adhere to the First Amendment, some made the list — Liberty University and Syracuse, for example — because their policies or leadership previously promised they would do so, the organization said.

“All of these colleges claim to — or are required to — respect student and faculty free speech rights, but not a single one delivers,” FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley said in the announcement. “College students are adults, and they don’t need administrators to shield them from speech the college deems objectionable — or that its authorities simply don’t like.”

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