Free speech group names York College one of 2017's top offenders

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch
York College officials say are limiting attendance to the “Rewind” art exhibition because they were concerned the public would not understand the “intended educational context of the exhibit.”

A national First Amendment alliance listed York College as one of 2017's top "offenders" of free speech for its handling of a controversial art exhibit earlier this year.

The National Coalition Against Censorship released its list of the top free speech offenders and defenders of the year on Wednesday, Dec. 20, designating York College as an offender for limiting public access to the anti-racist art exhibit "Rewind" this fall.

"Rewind" was created by artist Paul Rucker and showcased works including colorful Ku Klux Klan robes, shackles and posters of the D.W. Griffith silent-film epic "The Birth of A Nation," long seen as one of Hollywood’s most racist works.

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York College decided to allow only select guests and those with campus identification into the exhibit during its Aug. 31 to Oct. 21 run.

“Apparently worried about creating controversy and unrest, York College officials closed 'Rewind' to the public,” the NCAC noted in its explanation of York College’s “offender” designation.

Artist responds: Rucker agreed with the coalition's assessment in a telephone interview on Wednesday, Dec. 20, calling the lack of public access and discussion on racism weeks after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, a "missed opportunity."

He said the college being named an offender on the list is a positive outcome of the situation, which he hopes will spark reform at the school.

"It’s a good thing (that York College made the list) because it’s a lesson learned," he said.

He said many students approached him saying that they wished they learned of the exhibit earlier so they could attend one of the workshops, in which Rucker and attendees engaged in dialogue about the items and their relation to the current racial and political environment.

Rucker said he hopes York College administrators handle a similar matter in a different way in the future.

"The opposition I saw in York was surprising until I saw the history of York," Rucker said. "There’s a lot of history regarding race that needs to be discussed (here)."

Paul Rucker's REWIND exhibit at York College included pieces reminiscent of chattel slavery.

Rucker said the decision to close the event from the public was mostly at the hands of York College President Pamela Gunter-Smith.

"Ultimately, it was her decision," he said. "It was a missed opportunity."

Coalition: The National Coalition Against Censorship is an alliance of 56 national nonprofit groups of literary, artistic, religious, educational, labor rights and civil liberties groups, according to its website.

The coalition formed in response to the 1973 landmark Supreme Court case Miller v. California, which broadened the definition of obscenity and increased persecution of sexual expression, according to advocates.

Other top offenders on the list included “alt-right provocateurs” and the far-left group known as Antifa, which the NCAC claims have “attempted to silence their detractors with threats of physical violence.”

The coalition also included the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for allegedly advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not to include seven words — “vulnerable,” diversity,” “transgender,” “entitlement,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based” —  on official budget documents.

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York College: In a statement in September explaining its decision to limit access to the exhibit, York College said the exhibit includes images that “while powerful, are very provocative and potentially disturbing to some,” adding, “This is especially the case without the benefit of an understanding of the intended educational context of the exhibit.”

However, the NCAC noted previous exhibitions of "Rewind" included Rucker attending and participating in community events to discuss the exhibition.

“Rather than use 'Rewind' to promote discourse, York College chose to hide it from the public,” the organization stated.

A York College spokeswoman declined comment until hearing back from  Gunter-Smith, who has not returned separate calls seeking comment.