May 22, 2014

Critical sculpture of Canadian university president is removed: Because it’s ‘harassment and bullying’

From the statement by Capilano University (a public university in North Vancouver, British Columbia):

Late last week, an effigy of the University President, produced by George Rammell, was removed from campus on my direction.

The effigy has been repeatedly displayed on and off campus and online over the last year. The decision to remove the effigy was not taken lightly, but rather was the result of endeavouring to find the right balance among many competing values.

Our University is committed to the open and vigorous discourse that is essential in an academic community, the inherent value of artistic expression, and the rights to free speech and protest that all Canadians enjoy. No one wants Capilano to be a place where art is arbitrarily removed or censored.

We must also be mindful of the University’s obligations to cultivate and protect a respectful workplace in which personal harassment and bullying are prohibited. These obligations are reflected in our employment policies, as well as legislation. Our policies are intended to protect the interests of all individuals in our community — including our president, as well as our faculty and all others.

I am satisfied that recently the effigy has been used in a manner amounting to workplace harassment of an individual employee, intended to belittle and humiliate the President. This led me, as Board Chair, to take action.

I understand that the University’s Administration has offered to give Mr. Rammell the effigy. The condition attached to this is that it not be returned to campus, and I fully support that position.
Inside Higher Ed has more:

At British Columbia’s Capilano University, the administration seized a sculpture [titled Blathering On in Krisendom] caricaturing the university president on the grounds that it constituted “harassment” of President Kris Bulcroft.

The Capilano instructor who created the sculpture, George Rammell, said that the artwork, which depicts Bulcroft and her poodle as ventriloquist dolls wrapped in an American flag, was removed from the university’s studio art building without his knowledge on the night of May 7….

President Bulcroft has come under heavy criticism for her decision last year to cut several programs, including the studio arts program, for which Rammell teaches, and textile arts. British Columbia’s Supreme Court ruled in April that the Capilano administration had acted contrary to the province’s University Act in making the cuts to courses and programs without seeking the advice of the Capilano Senate. The university is considering an appeal.

“The sculpture was really made out of a need to respond to my feeling of being violated,” said Rammell. “In Canada we used to be able to make caricatures of politicians and they would have a good laugh over their morning coffee.” …

Steven C. Dubin, a professor of arts administration at Columbia University’s Teachers College who studies art and censorship, described the Capilano administration’s decision to remove the sculpture as “pathetic.”

I think universities should have considerable discretion about what is displayed at the university, at least in places where only a few things get to be displayed (as opposed to places deliberately open to all students or all student groups to display their own views) — just as universities should have considerable discretion over whom they invite to give lectures (as opposed to whom student groups invite). I don’t know enough about the nature of this particular space to opine further.

But the claim that this is legally required to prevent “harassment” — and indeed the very labeling of such speech as “harassment,” a term with legal consequences — strikes me as much more troubling; it suggests, for instance, that a university that chose to tolerated such speech was acting illegally, or perhaps even that an individual who engages in such speech could be sued or prosecuted. And unfortunately, the vague and potentially broad term “harassment” has indeed been at times read to cover such political criticism, whether we’re talking about workplace harassment or criminal harassment, even in the United States, with our considerably more forceful free-speech protections. Argument such as Capilano University’s therefore pave the way for suppression of speech far beyond just a university’s decision about which sculptures to have displayed on campus.

And this helps illustrate my concern with new American proposals — which include criminal punishments — to ban “harassment and bullying.” They of course arise in response to very bad behavior, often behavior that seems to have little or no social value. But by using such potentially broad, ill-defined terms, they risk outlawing a much broader range of speech, especially given that people who disapprove of some speech will have a strong incentive to try to shoehorn it into these broad and vague categories.


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