USA: Censorship continues in public spaces and schools

Throughout 2016 and into the beginning of 2017, the US has seen multiple cases of censorship and attempted censorship of art in public spaces and schools. Murals on public walls or in university halls, books in school curricula and productions of plays and musicals have all been targeted by a variety of groups because of their content.

Below are snapshots of such acts of censorship and attempted censorship in the US that have happened from May 2016 to January 2017.

High school removes racial slur from musical production

Cherry Hill High School East in New Jersey will go on with its production of musical ‘Ragtime’, but without the use of a racial slur, district officials said on 20 January 2017.

The issue was raised after a parent complained about the use of the racial slur and various groups requested the school to make changes to the musical.

“We will not be allowing the use of the N-word to be spoken by our students,” school chief Joseph Meloche said. “I don’t endorse the use of the word, nor will it be used on our stage.”

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) has called for a reversal of the decision and argued that the language in the musical “reflects a historical reality and its inclusion will help to educate students about the ugly reality of racism”.

The amended production is set to open 10 March.

Photo: Cherry Hill High School East/Wikicommons


» NCAC – 25 January 2017
Free speech groups urge NJ school to reverse censorship of performance of Ragtime

 » NJ Pen – 25 January 2017
Cherry Hill BOE ‘Ragtime’ censorship raises shades of local prejudice, challenges theatre dept.

» The Philadelphia Inquirer– 20 January 2017
Cherry Hill school district pulls the ‘N-word’ from Ragtime production 

Provocative mural calls into question survival of art wall

On 25 January 2017, members of the public in Portland, Maine were asked to give their opinions on whether a legally-sanctioned graffiti wall that has been used for 15 years should remain, due to a provocative mural that appeared in September 2016 of state governor Paul LePage in the emblematic robe and hood of a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) member.

At the time the mural went up, city mayor Ethan Strimling had called for its removal, saying: “I do not want it up there. It is not reflective of our values. The KKK has a long, problematic history in the state of Maine, and equating the governor and his rhetoric, as much as we disagree with it, is a step too far.”

The original mural depicted the governor as a KKK member appeared on the wall of the city’s sewage treatment plant, which is sanctioned for graffiti and has been used as a site for legal graffiti for 15 years. A group of people attempted to cover up the mural with white paint, but others cleaned it off and amended the image of the governor to be depicted with Mickey Mouse ears.

Strimling asked the Portland Water District to remove the mural, but city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said that the mural couldn’t be taken as it was ”a matter of free speech”, adding: ”If it was hate speech, it would be illegal. But it’s not.”

At first, water district officials said the mural should remain, but later their spokewoman, Michelle Clements, said the district manager would meet with city officials to see what could be done with the mural.

Controversy surrounding the governor and his administration stems from comments made about black people and Hispanics to be the large majority of drug traffickers arrested in the state, calling them ”the enemy right now”.

Over the 15 years that the wall has been a legal space for graffiri artists no painting has ever been removed.

Photo: Portland, Maine city hall/Wikicommons


» WCSH6 – 25 January 2017
Public to weigh in on whether or not to keep art wall

» Bangor Daily News – 7 September 2016
Someone painted a mural in Portland depicting LePage as a Klansman, and it’s already been changed

» Portland Press Herald – 7 September 2016
Scathing LePage mural tests Portland’s stance on free speech 

Students claim high school play shut down over homosexual themes

Over the weekend of 21-22 January 2017, school district officials in Clovis, California cancelled a student production at Buchanan High School of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘No Exit’ after one performance due to parent complaints over adult content. Students behind the play, however, claim the reason is due to homosexual themes in their production as one character is homosexual and another is androgynous.

“There’s language,” Kelly Avants, school district communications director, told ABC30. “There are themes of child murder. There are themes of people getting shot multiple times. There’s a great deal of sexual content from a number of different perspectives.”

Student director Jared Serpa said the play takes place in hell between three characters who discuss how they got there, explaining that ”you’re not going to get to hell by stepping on ants”. Serpa also said that the play was approved before they went into production.

Avants said the play should have never been approved as the play is for advance placement courses that have to have parental approval for what the students use, as opposed to a drama programme that has the ”expectation” of creating ”age-appropriate content” for students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

‘We have done multiple other shows at the high school level that includes lesbian, gay or questioning characters,” Avants said. ”We would never think that that was reason to cancel a play, and certainly not after the play’s already going.’

Photo: Buchanan High School/Wikicommons


» Gay Star News – 24 January 2017
Students claim school play was banned because it features a lesbian character

» ABC30 – 23 January 2017
Homophobia alleged as Clovis Unified shuts down high school play 

Controversial painting removed from US Capitol

A controversial painting by 18-year-old Missouri student David Pulphus, which has been hanging in a tunnel of the U.S. Capitol building since June 2016, has become the focus of Congressional scrutiny leading to Congressmen removing and re-installing the painting several times in the beginning weeks of January 2017.

The painting entitled ‘Untitled #1’, which was hung in the tunnel by Missouri Democratic Representative Lacy Clay after Pulphus won a local art competition in Clay’s district, depicts police officers as pigs arresting and pointing guns at black protestors.

Controversy began in early January 2017 when police organisations began complaining about the depiction of police officers in the painting. On 6 January, California Republican Representative Duncan Hunter removed the painting, took it to Clay’s office and later talked to Fox News about his act.

On 10 January, Clay, along with other black lawmakers and the head of the Congressional Black Conference, held a press conference wherein they re-installed the painting.

“I do not agree or disagree with this painting. But I will fight to defend this young man’s right to express himself because his artwork is true for him and he is entitled to that protection under the law,” Clay said at the press conference.

Hours later, Colorado Republican Representative Doug Lamborn removed the painting and returned it to Clay’s office. Hours after that, Clay re-installed the painting. However, just a few more hours later, two other Republican representatives – Dana Rohrabacher (California) and Brain Babin (Texas) – removed the painting once again.

The Architect of the Capitol, the office responsible for overseeing the buildings and grounds on Capitol Hill, decided on 13 January that the painting should not be hung because it violated the rules of the congressional art competition, which state:

“Artwork must adhere to the policy of the House Office Building Commission. In accordance with this policy, exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature are not allowed.”

In a statement, Clay called the decision “unprecedented and unconstitutional” and said:

[The removal of the painting] sent a chilling message to young Americans that their voices are not respected, their views are not valued, and their freedom of expression is no longer protected in the U.S. Capitol … The assertion that the painting did not comply with the rules of the Congressional Art Competition is arbitrary and insulting. Like the other 400-plus entries, this painting was accepted and approved by the Congressional Art Competition last spring, and it has been peacefully displayed in a public forum for more than six months.

Photo: U.S. Capitol/Wikicommons


» St. Louis Post-Dispatch – 17 January 2017
Controversial Capitol painting by former St. Louis student taken down; Clay promises appeal

» Vox – 11 January 2017
Congress is feuding over a teen’s controversial painting that dramatizes events in Ferguson

» The Washington Post – 10 January 2017
House battle over controversial student painting spirals out of control

» Los Angeles Times – 10 January 2017
California’s Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is latest lawmaker to pull down painting in Capitol depicting police as pigs

» Politico – 6 January 2017
GOP lawmaker removed painting of police as animals from Capitol

» The Huffington Post – 6 January 2017
Painting-Gate: GOP congressman removes controversial Capitol art in act of censorship

University removes statue of controversial imprisoned Native American figure

On 3 January, American University in Washington, D.C., removed a statue of controversial Native American activist Leonard Peltier less than a month after the statue was erected on 9 December 2016. The statue was meant to be displayed through April 2017.

Rigo 23, the Portuguese, San Francisco-based sculptor of the statue said he received a vague email on 29 December 2016 informing him of the removal from Jack Rasmussen, the director and curator of the university’s museum at the Katzen Arts Centre. Two days later he received another email stating that the reason for the removal was due to the university receiving threats if the statue was not removed.

The artist, however, is suspicious of the stated reason and believes the university removed his work at the request of the FBI Agents Association, as the artist’s questions to the university about the threats have gone unanswered.

“The FBI Agents Association asked them to take it down because it was offensive to law enforcements,” the artist told Washingont City Paper on 4 January 2017. “I’ve asked them repeatedly what the nature of the threats were, who were making these threats, where they’re coming from. None of these questions have been answered.”

Peltier is a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement, who, in 1977, was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for the murder of two FBI agents in 1975 during a conflict on an Indian reservation. His trial, the investigation into the killings and the way evidence was collected and used have been the subject of controversy. At the end of President Obama’s term in office, Peltier’s application for clemency was denied. Peltier continues to maintain his innocence.

In a statement, university officials said:

The decision to host the Peltier statue required a more thorough assessment of the implications of placing the piece in a prominent, public space outside the museum … The subject matter and placement of the piece improperly suggested that American University has assumed an advocacy position of clemency for Mr. Peltier, when no such institutional position has been taken.

Photo: Rigo 23/Wikicommons


» The Washington Post – 4 January 2017
Anger at a cop killer, a plea for clemency, and a fight over free expression at American U.

» Washington City Paper – 4 January 2017
Artist questions freedom of speech after American University takes down his statue

» Democracy Now – 4 January 2017
American University removes Leonard Peltier statue after FBI letter amid urgent push for clemency

Poem not approved for display at city shopping centre

A poem by Junauda Petrus entitled ‘A Prayer for Pussies’ was blocked from public display at the re-designed Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, as part of a permanent display featuring several other poems, reported the Star Tribune on 30 December 2016.

Petrus said her poem was in part a response to then President-elect Trump’s 2005 comments suggesting he groped women, adding that she wanted to write a poem that is “adding sacredness and having love around the idea of praying for pussies”.

The city’s public arts administrator, Mary Altman, said that while the poem was “extremely powerful”, she couldn’t approve it for the busy street.

“The content is very sexual, and to have really sexual content on a retail strip on the city where families hang out, where families go into Macy’s to look at the Christmas displays, it just didn’t feel to me to be appropriate,” Altman told the Star Tribune. “In another place in the city, another context, it might be.”

In a letter Petrus penned to the city, she said:

I learned two weeks ago that a poem I wrote that was to be made into a steel-sculptured and illuminated lantern for the reconstruction of the Nicollet Mall, would not be accepted by the city of Minneapolis due to its content. The piece was called “A Prayer for Pussies” and was my love letter to this city and this time. It was for all of us who are feeling disempowered by the powers at be. As a poet, I am positioned, prepared and tasked to be unflinching in my clarity of the now. I am indignant to this censorship by the city of Minneapolis, especially when there is a renaissance of elected, emboldened, hate-filled and money-driven bigots who do not love this world like I do. I will not be silenced or confused while they are revered and bowed down to.


» City Pages – 5 January 2017
City of Minneapolis censors public art coming to Nicollet Mall

» Twin Cities Daily Planet – 2 January 2017
Community Voices: On art and censorship, Junauda Petrus’ open letter to the city of Minneapolis

» Star Tribune – 30 December 2016
New Nicollet Mall art won’t feature poem that references female genitalia

Two paintings removed from state capitol building

On 8 December 2016, the Minnesota Historical Society said the 1904 painting ‘Attack on New Ulm’ by Anton Gag and 1910 painting ‘Eighth Minnesota at the Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty’ by Carl L. Boeckmannm would be removed from the State Capitol.

The society explained the decision was made by its executive council after adopting a recommendation from its ad hoc committee and said in a press release that:

Neither painting is original to the Capitol design and both are painful reminders of our shared history. The ‘Attack on New Ulm’ portrays one incident during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which not all Dakota supported. This painting should not be the primary portrayal of American Indians who lived in Minnesota for more than 10,000 years.

Both paintings controversially portray conflicts between white settlers and the Dakota people.

Photo: ‘Attack on New Ulm’/Wikicommons


» KNUJ – 10 December 2016
Anton Gag’s ‘Attack on New Ulm’ removed from Capitol walls

» Mankato Free Press – 9 December 2016
Minnesotans react to removal of Gag painting

» The Journal – 9 December 2016
Anton Gag painting ‘Attack on New Ulm’ pulled from Capitol

Two classic books pulled after parent complaint

The Accomack County school district in Virginia has pulled Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ from schools in December 2016 after a parent complained about the books’ content.

“There is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is,” the parent, Marie Rothstein-Williams, said at a school board meeting. “We’re validating that these words are acceptable. They are not acceptable.”

Some residents of the county protested the act of censorship outisde of the county courthouse, saying the use of racial slurs in the books is not meant to condone their use, but rather to highlight the ignorance of bigotry.

The school district has appointed a committe to determine if the ban should be permanent.

Photo: Scene from film ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’/Wikicommons


» The Los Angeles Times – 5 December 2016
Virginia school pulls book after parent’s complaint

» The Guardian – 5 December 2016
To Kill a Mockingbird removed from Virginia schools for racist language

» The Washington Post – 3 December 2016
School district weighs ban of ‘Mockingbird,’ ‘Huckleberry Finn’ after complaint

Organisers pull anti-Trump art project from fair

After Donald Trump’s US presidential win in November 2016, artists Mary Mihelic and David Gleeson from the t.Rutt art collective discovered their anti-Trump protest art project was pulled from the Red Dot Fair in Miami, Florida.

The artists received an e-mail, which they shared with Hyperallergic, from Eric Smith, the president and CEO of Redwood Media Group which owns Red Dot, which stated: “In light of the surprising results [of the election], I’ve decided to pass on both the bus display and the flag.”

The art project consisted of a former Trump campaign bus that was re-modelled into a protest bus with anti-Trump messages that the two artists drove to Republican rallies for most of 2016. The other item of the project is a large US flag with stitched phrases from Trump’s leaked tape of sexual comments.

“If no one is willing to show anti-Trump art, no artists are going to be willing to make it,” Mihelic told the Miami Herald. “Freedom of speech is what really makes America great.”

Photo: Trump bus/t.Rutt Facebook page


» Miami Herald – 1 December 2016
Trump protest bus will park in Wynwood after Miami art fair says ‘You’re fired’

» Hyperallergic – 16 November 2016
After election, Miami fair flip-flops on hosting anti-Trump art project 

Censored university mural to see light

University of Kentucky officials announced in September 2016 that a controversial mural that had been decided to be covered up in November 2015 until a solution was reached, would be uncovered over the course of the semester with the addition of other art and “digital boards” that would provide context to the art work.

In his blog, university president Eli Capilouto wrote: “Now, as the committee recommended, it is time to tell the story more completely and through the eyes of many experiences — preserving the art as part of our history, but adding to it to tell a more complete and sensitively rendered story of our human experience.”

Capilouto added that the other works of art would be commissioned from “a diverse group of artists” so that the mural would show “a variety of perspectives that provide a larger narrative of our history, our aspirations, our shortcomings and the progress we still must make”.

The large 1934 mural by Ann Rice O’Hanlon depicts the history of the city of Lexington and is featured in the institution’s Memorial Hall. In 2015, a group of black students complained about sections of the mural they found offensive, including depiction of black people working in tobacco fields, white people watching black musicians perform for them and Native Americans holding tomahawks.

Photo: University of Kentucky main building/Wikicommons


» The Daily Caller – 6 September 2016
University of Kentucky stops censoring famed mural instructs students how to think about it

» Lexington Herald Leader – 1 September 2016
University of Kentucky to uncover controversial mural, add more art and context

» Lexington Herald Leader – 23 November 2015
UK to cover controversial mural at Memorial Hall

“Harmful” murals at university moved to “controlled” room

In August 2016, University of Wisconsin-Stout first decided to remove two 80-year-old murals after the school’s Diversity Leadership Team complained they reinforced racial stereotypes and promoted “acts of domination and oppression”. But after complaints from the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), the university said they would be moved to a room where they could be viewed under “controlled circumstances”.

However, the NCAC noted the explanation behind the move was “even worse than the move itself” as university chancellor Bob Meyer said the move was a business decision aimed at encouraging the enrolment of more Native American students.

Both paintings featured in the school’s Harvey Hall were painted in 1936 by Cal Peters and show interactions between white settles and Native Americans.

Photo: University of Wisconsin-Stout logo/Wikicommons


» Hyperallergic – 12 August 2016
University plans to remove two WPA murals for colonial depictions

» Heat Street – 12 August 2016
UPDATE: Wisconsin College ‘harmful’ paintings of Native Americans now headed to ‘controlled’ room

» NCAC – 8 August 2016
Uni. of Wisconsin-Stout moves to censor paintings of first nations people; UPDATE: Chancellor modifies course, paintings to be relocated

Religious song pulled from high school show

In July 2016, school officials of Holtville High School, in Holtville, Alabama, had to pull the religious song ‘Amazing Grace’ from its band’s performance during an American football game after a complaint was received.

In a statement officials said: “Our Constitution prohibits us from promoting religion in our educational programs and activities. While we understand the feelings of the parents who are unhappy about the decision, we have an obligation to comply with the law.”

More than 1,000 people joined a Facebook group opposing the decision to pull the song.

Photo: ‘Amazing Grace’ song sheet/Wikicommons


» – 24 July 2016
‘Amazing Grace’ pulled from Alabama high school band’s football halftime show after complaint

» WTVM – 23 July 2016
Removal of hymn from band’s halftime show sets off controversy

Controversial mural taken down, city to draft public arts policy

In July 2016, the city of Elgin, Illinois, decided its Cultural Arts Commission needed to develop a public arts policy after a downtown mural sparked controversy that drew people to call for its removal as many saw the work as racist. The work was removed in June 2016 by unanimous public vote.

The mural, entitled ‘American Nocturne’, depicted part of a famous 1930s photograph showing the lynching of two black teenagers. When the photograph was taken a group of onlookers turned toward the camera, with one of the people pointing in the direction of the boys. The mural depicted only the onlookers with none of the other parts of the photograph, and had been on display in downtown Elgin for the last nine years before the controversy started.

The commission will be responsible for deciding the future of the removed artwork.

Photo: Elgin Cultural Arts Commission/City of Elgin website


» Chicago Reader – 20 July 2016
A controversial Elgin mural is stranded between censorship and outrage

» Chicago Tribune – 13 July 2016
Elgin approves go-ahead on public art policy

» Chicago Tribune – 15 June 2016
Elgin mural ‘not doing any good’ says arts commissioner

» NCAC – 26 May 2016
American Nocturne: When public art engenders controversy; UPDATE: Mural removed, Elgin Arts Commission will decide fate

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