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Free Speech Done Right
An Open Letter to the President of the University of Tampa in praise of his faculty's commitment to free expression
February 4, 2022
CEO, United States Free Speech Union
President, University of Tampa
February 3, 2022
Dear President Vaughn
As the President and CEO of the United States Free Speech Union, much of my time is spent taking others to task for abridging or failing to recognize the principles of free expression. But a year ago this month the actions of your university and, specifically, two of its members afforded me the rare pleasure of writing a letter of affirmation. On the anniversary of the actions that prompted that admirable conduct, I write to renew my of praise Jocelyn Boigenzahn, the director of your university’s art galleries and a lecturer in the art department, and to applaud your university’s efforts to ensure that the art of Emma Quintana, also a lecturer in the art department, was displayed unmolested in the university’s gallery.
As you’ll recall, Ms Quintana’s installation, White America: Supremacy, Nationalism and Patriotism, provoked a disparaging UTampa College Republicans Instagram post, which was followed by an impassioned social media debate. The artwork was then surreptitiously disassembled by a group of unknown students who objected to its use of the American flag. In response to the vandalism of Ms Quintana’s installation and to promote discussion, Ms Boigenzahn encouraged students and other gallery patrons to respond to the installation and then collected and displayed those responses in the gallery, along with this inspiringly uncompromising statement: “In accordance with guidelines provided by the American Association of University Professors that align artistic expression with academic freedom, the university does not censor artistic expression and encourages dialogue that is both educational and productive.”
Effective art always engages its audience, and will often arouse intense reactions and dispute. Ms Quintana’s installation expressed a controversial idea; it therefore provoked, and even offended, many of those who viewed it. In their Instagram message, the UTampa Republicans responded to Ms Quintana’s work in a wholly appropriate manner--and indeed, in a manner in keeping with the intentions of Ms Quintana and of the gallery that displayed her art: They countered a robust expression of an idea with an equally robust rejoinder. On the other hand, the reaction of the students who dismantled Ms Quintatana’s installation was reprehensible and dangerous. In a free and self-critical society, ideas should be openly contested; they cannot be suppressed and driven from the public square.
An art gallery and a university, especially, have a responsibility to foster the expression of controversial ideas--and to protect that expression from those who seek to restrict it. In this light, I find the actions of Ms Boigenzahn to be exemplary. Her gallery provided a forum for Ms Quintana to convey her ideas. She promoted a platform for students and other gallery patrons to deliberate and debate those ideas. And she forthrightly articulated her university’s and her gallery’s obligation to safeguard artistic expression and to nurture open discussion. Ms Boigenzahn’s actions demonstrated the vital role that universities and cultural institutions play in a democratic society, and therefore her actions reflected brilliantly on the University of Tampa.
At the time of the controversy surrounding her installation, Ms Quintana reported that some of her colleagues expressed worry that her appointment would not be renewed owing to the contention her art aroused. We, on the other hand, were confident that, given your university’s recognition of the value of free expression, departmental and university decisions regarding the retention of Ms Quintana would be unaffected by the views she expressed in her art and unaffected by the objections, however vocal, raised by her critics. A year later, we are heartened to see that Ms Quintana remains a lecturer at UTampa. Support for free expression is hardest when it is challenged. I therefore commend the university and faculty for their resolve and commitment to principles of intellectual and artistic freedom.