What next for controversial art shows?

After censorship
By ISAAC KESTENBAUM  |  November 21, 2006

TALKING CENSORSHIP: Panelists mull controversy, reaction

The University of Southern Maine will take extra pains to appear neutral when promoting art exhibits university president Richard Pattenaude told a symposium discussing his decision to prematurely close a controversial show in September.

Pattenaude said the university would not stifle debate or controversy, but would make sure to be a forum for the debate, and not a party to it.

The censored show — “Can’t Jail the Spirit: Art by Political Prisoner Tom Manning and Others” — featured student work as well as paintings by Thomas William Manning, who is serving a life sentence in federal prison for his role in the 1981 fatal shooting of a New Jersey state trooper during an attempt to arrest Manning for participating in a series of politically motivated bombings of government and corporate buildings in the Northeast.

The show was taken down seven days into a planned seven-week run, after several police organizations objected to the characterization of Manning as a political prisoner. The student-exhibitors’ work was later put back up, while Manning’s paintings were shown at a Portland gallery.

Pattenaude said he closed the exhibit because its promotional material, including its title, made the university appear to take a position, compromising its neutrality.

“We declared, ipso facto, that Tom Manning was a political prisoner,” said Pattenaude. “There was no disclaimer.”

The police apparently did not feel bound to the same standards of neutrality as the university, noted student and panelist Marie Follayttar, whose art was featured in the exhibit. Fellow panelist John Porter, editorial page editor for the Portland Press Herald, agreed: “It’s inappropriate for police to voice opinion while in uniform,” he said.

(Organizers said the Maine State Troopers Association declined to send a representative to the symposium.)

“The purpose of a university is to encourage learning,” said panelist Daniel Chard, an organizer with exhibit sponsor Portland Victory Gardens Project, a nonprofit working for the release of political prisoners.

“If we’re going to learn, we need to discuss all ideas and topics openly,” said Chard. “When you censor something . . . you’re not giving us the opportunity to make up our own minds.”

So why could the university not modify the message and let the exhibit stay? Quotation marks were placed around the words “political prisoner” in the show title, but Pattenaude claimed it was too late to neutralize the university’s position. “We’d created a firestorm,” he said.

Some symposium attendees argued that a public university is obligated to embrace a “firestorm” of controversy, even one it did not invite.

“Life does descend on the university,” said panelist Bruce Clary, a professor of public policy and management at USM’s Muskie School. “You can’t pick and choose what issues you want to face. You can’t pick and choose your battlefields.”

Pattenaude said the university would not censor future controversial exhibits, “if we are accurate and even — as we usually are.”

Panelist and USM gallery director Carolyn Eyler said she feels no pressure to shy away from controversy. “I don’t feel clamped down on [by the university],” she said.

The controversy has served as a catalyst, noted Jonah Fertig of the Portland Victory Gardens Project. A “Can’t Jail the Spirit International Tour” is planned for next year.

For its part, the university is planning a yearlong “colloquium on academic freedom” for 2007, and has also created an academic freedom committee, which will advise the faculty senate.

  Topics: This Just In , Education, Higher Education, Police,  More more >
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