A Student Artist’s Noose Artwork Sparks First Amendment Debate

When a BFA student exhibited an artwork that uses the image of a noose, he didn’t realize the impact it would have on the college community.

Fall 2018 BFA exhibition of Kaelen Williams at the University of Colorado (Boulder, Colorado) (image courtesy Kaelen Williams)

In the 2006 case Guiles v. Marineu, Judge Richard J. Cardamone wrote, “this case requires us to sail into the unsettled waters of free speech rights in public schools, waters rife with rocky shoals and uncertain currents.” He was addressing educator’s uncertain balance between valuing expression and debate with obligations to protect students. In the context of art and discourse, are universities navigating the boundaries of free speech competently and can they be the incubator for institutional inclusion policy or is every new censorship case a sign of redundancy?

Last fall, University of Colorado student Kaelen Williams learned he was the only BFA student scheduled to graduate in December. Typically, the last semester of the BFA program requires a seminar comprised of students across art departments, lead by a faculty member, that culminates in an exhibition produced, curated, and promoted by the class. In the absence of a cohort, an independent study supervised by faculty advisor Alvin Gregorio was substituted. Williams told Hyperallergic in hindsight, “it would have been nice to have other people to talk to about what I failed to see.” What transpired was a solo exhibition presented in the lobby of the Visual Arts Complex, a building dedicated to the art and art history department. The high-traffic lobby doubles as a large hallway to first floor studios, classrooms and some faculty offices. Williams installed an exhibition titled less than nothing which he explained, “deals with the ego versus collective consciousness.” The exhibition of over 30 paintings included an image of a cigarette butt, a tangle of figures fighting with heads bagged and a painting of a noose. “I wanted people to acknowledge their assumptions about objects. Nothing has inherent meaning. I was thinking about a Death Grip song and I’m obsessed with the book Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. He hung himself. The racial associations were so far from my mind.”

Fall 2018 BFA exhibition of Kaelen Williams at the University of Colorado (Boulder, Colorado) (image courtesy Kaelen Williams)

Before Williams completed installing the exhibition on Thursday November 29, he produced promotional posters, a component of the BFA seminar, selecting “Noose” as the isolated image to distribute on campus. “I selected it because it is central to the show, it is attention grabbing and the dimensions worked. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have used that image out of context.”

Fall 2018 BFA exhibition of Kaelen Williams at the University of Colorado (Boulder, Colorado) (image courtesy Kaelen Williams)

When Williams arrived at his exhibition Friday afternoon, shortly before the opening, a sign warning viewers about the potentially disturbing imagery and curtains were present. “They appeared overnight,” Williams noted. “I didn’t know they would be there, but I had no problem with it.” A department assistant then informed Williams the entire show had to be relocated to the basement after the opening because it was inappropriate in the current space. Shortly after, Williams received an email from the department chair Kirk Ambrose reiterating the message. Williams claims his requests to meet Dr. Ambrose or proposals to remove images of concern were rejected. “You can’t just say the whole show is inappropriate. My abstract paintings are inappropriate? It’s an art school, if you can’t test dicey ideas here, where do you do that?” University officials declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

By Monday December 3, Williams started a petition and both parties were speaking in the local press. Later that week, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and PEN America, submitted a joint letter to the university in support of Williams, prompting a meeting and a statement by the university with an agreed resolution. It concluded the art exhibition would remain in its basement location through December 9. Additionally, a symposium would be planned to further discuss art and free expression and the student would work with a faculty member to create a mural in the lobby of the Visual Arts Complex. Dr. Ambrose explained to Hyperallergic the mural component was “a way to think about the conversation in a different format. The symposium is a theoretical exercise and the mural is a practical one for an art practitioner.”

Since the resolution was reached, Williams changed his mind. Over winter break “I got a voicemail from a police officer that two people got threatening articles under their studio doors and they thought it was me, that I was trying to intimidate people. If that was a racist jumping on my attention I don’t want that to happen. If students think I’m racist, then making a mural isn’t productive or safe for anyone.”

Fall 2018 BFA exhibition of Kaelen Williams after its relocation at the University of Colorado (Boulder, Colorado) (image courtesy Kaelen Williams)

The First Amendment doesn’t allow someone to do or say whatever one wants, whenever one wants, hence the saying, “you can’t shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” The parameters of time, space and manner of expression negotiate the degrees of protections, which can contract uniquely within school house gates. The Supreme Court ruled in Bethel v. Fraser (1986) that students do not have the right to make provocatively obscene speeches at school and in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) ruled that administrators can restrict student speech in school-sponsored newspapers. The moral theory behind these decisions is no one should be forced to confront certain types of speech.

Art and the first amendment are often at a crossroad which raises the question: do the tests for obscenity, which defend art like Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit work at the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center in 1990, extend to protect racially offensive content? In both Lahme v. University of Southwestern Louisiana (1997) and Piarowski v. Illinois Community College District (1985), the court found that an artist’s rights were not violated by college officials that demanded sexually explicit and racially offensive art to be relocated to an alternative location on campus. A restriction on freedom of expression, whether a sign, curtain or change of venue is legally acceptable especially in cases such as Kaelen Williams, because the artist claimed the work was not political.

Promotional poster for Fall 2018 BFA exhibition at the University of Colorado (Boulder, Colorado) (image from instagram)

Civil Rights attorney Kate Nicolson notes “leafleting a symbol charged with racist history like ‘Noose’ all over the university is more problematic than the show.” Darrell D. Jackson, professor of law at the University of Wyoming agrees, highlighting the lack of consideration of Black audiences, “is a special space of privilege. You didn’t have to consider how Black students feel seeing a noose on their campus? What does that say about the student’s University of Colorado education?”

According to sources within the department, the first two faculty members to complain about the painting “Noose” in the lobby of their workplace were minorities. Only 2% of faculty at the University of Colorado-Boulder are Black, underscoring how the lack of diversity is a factor in this case. Dr. Jackson notes, “the lack of diverse faculty is in correlation to how safe they feel academically and physically. If you are the only minority faculty in the department and no one else has sounded the bell about the student’s action, is speaking out going to call you into question academically? If no one has a problem with it, is it just your problem? Data suggests the more diverse the campus, the more support the university provides faculty to participate.”

The University of Colorado Dean of Arts and Sciences, James White agrees, “we have to understand our implicit biases. Faculty in the classroom are going to model for the students and if all we got is old white guys it’s not going to work. These are deep cultural problems, but it’s incumbent upon universities to lead.”

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