When a New Jersey high school art department turned its gym into a temporary gallery last Tuesday, it couldn’t have predicted the controversy that would follow. The artworks in the exhibit, which ran at Westfield High School May 12–14, centered on three themes selected by the students themselves reflecting compelling contemporary issues: “Modern Technology Advances,” “Gender Equality,” and “Law Enforcement – Police Brutality.” They had been encouraged to address these subjects creatively.
The latter theme was no doubt inspired by events that have shaken the United States over the past year — the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and others, as well as the protests against excessive police violence that followed. Their deaths at the hands of police have shaped the world views of many young Americans, and it’s not surprising the students felt the need to explore them through art. They did so in a series of silkscreens that echo the troubling media images we’re all familiar with by now: a boy with his hands up, an officer drawing his gun, a bloody body on the ground, stabbed metaphorically by a police shield.
Many in Westfield and around the country saw the work as a disrespectful attack on law enforcement, the work of — as one Facebook commenter put it — “extreme leftist anti-cop ‘art’ teachers.” Hundreds of comments flooded in on the school’s Facebook review page from offended policemen, parents, and others. “The only way to solve this is through a press conference apology and the firing of this teacher,” one Facebook commenter wrote Friday, a demand repeated by several others.
According to New Jersey Advanced Media, the story even made it to Fox News, where it enjoyed a full minute of air time. “Teachers at West View, would you do it? Would you put up an art exhibit showing teachers abusing students?” barked pundit Eric Bolling. Like many social media commenters, he called for the work to be censored. “I don’t think you’d do it, nor should you have done it, I’d like to see that thing taken down.”
Such statements come at a striking time, when those on the extreme right and left both have been embroiled in controversies over free speech — particularly relating to depictions of Mohammed, the Islamic prophet. While some on the left have criticized the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo for depicting the Islamic prophet (an act Muslims consider blasphemous), others on the right have resorted to organizing events like the recent “Draw Mohammed” contest in Texas. It seems that time and time again, Americans only believe in freedom of expression and censorship when it fits their personal agendas — whether that means creating or censoring religious cartoons, banning books (Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men) or shutting down exhibits featuring irreverent artworks (Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” or Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary”).
In the case of Westfield High School, it means not allowing students to grapple with current events that have shaken up the country. The exhibit was obviously not a discussion of the police in general, but rather incidences of abuse. It wasn’t titled merely “Law Enforcement,” but “Law Enforcement-Police Brutality.” As one Westfield High student said in a YouTube video, “Nobody was trying to say all cops are bad and all cops do bad things … Nobody’s intention was to say anything bad about all police. I think everyone was just trying to get their emotions straight.”
But judging by the surprising quantity of comments, many of our fellow citizens would rather young people not grapple with these issues, which seems a far greater cause for concern than any image the students created. Their requests for censorship sadly suggest the same blind trust in authority that leads to such abuses in the first place.
Thankfully, the school has stood faithfully by its students and their right to free speech. “The teacher was attempting to encourage the students to look at more than one side of an issue. One student, for example, had drawn a poster he had seen online during the unrest in another state. The student then wrote his observation that people often rush to judgment before hearing what the real story is,” Westfield Superintendent Margaret Dolan wrote in a statement. “I am sorry that information that has been passed along via social media and elsewhere has not told the entire story and has led some to believe that we do not respect law enforcement. We do, and we are teaching our students to do the same.” Bravo.