Is it possible to balance student rights to free expression with student rights to safety at school?
When does an administrative action count as censorship? What causes a piece of artwork to be labelled as a hate crime? These and other questions have been circulating around Albany High School lately.
On January 4, 2016, the Albany High School administration removed a piece of artwork from the wall in the first-floor hallway in response to several complaints over the subject.
This piece was the artist’s reaction to an announcement made by the Church of Latter-Day Saints (or the Mormon Church) in mid-November. The policy declared that children living with same-sex couples could not be participate in various ceremonies, such as baptisms. The artist, AHS sophomore Kyla Dullum, portrayed two women kissing over a background of cut-and-pasted pages of the Mormon Bible. “The intent was to make people uncomfortable and to bring attention to this issue,” explained Dullum.
AHS Advanced Art classes post public installations on campus as an annual assignment. These public projects are meant to replicate the critical conditions of a real working artist, in which the public is able to react to the students’ work. “The subject is up to the artist,” explained Advanced Art teacher Ginny Tremblay.
Each student is required to write a proposal to the administration beforehand, describing their planned piece, in order to ensure its appropriateness on school grounds. However, “there was a misunderstanding, procedurally,” said AHS Vice Principal Kevin Goines. Dullum neglected to mention within her proposal that the piece was to involve Bible pages being removed from the book and used as a background.
“The original proposal was very brief,” explained Dullum, acknowledging the misunderstanding.
Normally, students deviate from their proposals to an extent anyway, as the artistic process unfolds: “You typically make changes after the proposal,” added Tremblay. However, the administration remained ignorant of the controversial aspect of Dullum’s piece until it had gone public.
The discrepancy between the piece’s description in its proposal and final forms was what initially caused the administration to consider its removal. “There’s an assumption that the school agrees with everything on the wall. Public artwork has to go through the district,” described Goines. “What prompted the removal was seeing something that wasn’t quite represented originally in the proposal.”
However, the work’s controversial nature would have warranted its removal regardless of this misunderstanding, maintained Goines: “Had the artwork been represented as it was, there would have been a discussion in the first place.” He continued, “This isn’t the first time something was taken down.”
Dullum met with Goines in mid-December to defend her piece after it was posted. However, “the issue went unresolved,” described Dullum, who chose not to meet with the administration a second time after winter break. Despite actions taken by the administration, the piece remained public for the entirety of its allotted time: “I was going to take it down anyway,” continued Dullum. “By the time it was removed, I had already won.”
Advanced Art students usually post a statement alongside their public installation, explaining the work’s intent and meaning. Dullum’s accompanying statement was redrafted: “The reasoning behind it was off-setting,” she explained. “I needed to be more clear with what I was saying.” The redrafted statement was taken down prior to the piece’s removal by an unknown party.
Those who requested the removal of the piece included staff, students and parents. Despite attempts by this reporter to solicit comment, none have agreed to participate in this piece.
As for the artwork, it was shown for two weeks in January during the Omega Salvage art show on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. It has since sold for $150.
In regards to whether or not the piece’s removal could be categorized as censorship, Goines defended, “There is a delicate, difficult balance of expression.” When taking an action for the purpose of protecting a certain group against discrimination or discomfort, AHS walks a fine line.
Before winter break, rumors circulated around the school that the administration was warranting its intent to remove the piece because they viewed it as a hate crime. However, these were just speculations. Said Goines, “I wouldn’t call this piece a hate crime against Christianity. But it can be considered offensive, and kids have the right to be here without feeling discriminated against.”
The administration maintains that freedom of expression and opinion is already prominent at Albany High and should not be taken for granted: “The first thing is to recognize how fortunate you are,” provided Goines. “You are given amazing opportunities at AHS in terms of art and expression: art, music programs. You guys are very lucky.”
That being said, it’s also important to consider the power of thought-provoking artwork.
“Kyla wanted to get people’s attention,” added Tremblay. “That’s what art does. The piece was very successful in that sense.”