Censorship on campus
By Rachel Brahinsky
JUST TWO MONTHS after the Academy of Art University's Montgomery Street campus was nearly overrun by sidewalk demonstrations supporting free speech rights, school administrators continue to encroach on their students' freedom of expression.
During one protest in April, a large black flatbed truck barreled up the street and served as a stage for students who surrounded by musicians in the punked-out outfits you'd expect to see at an art school criticized the administration for expelling two students and abruptly dismissing a writing instructor last winter. Amid the upbeat sounds of the marching band, they read a list of demands, including the formation of a democratically elected student government, to a crowd of about 100 onlookers.
Now that the spring semester is over and many students have left for summer break, the academy which boasts of being the largest private art school in the nation is a bit quieter.
Administrators have delayed addressing student demands and have seemed to ignore complaints by a host of well-known writers about the school's academic freedom and free speech policies perhaps hoping the unrest of the semester will be forgotten. But during the final weeks of the semester, the school shut down the student newspaper after it published an article about the demonstrations that was critical of the administration.
The academy's attorney says the school did nothing wrong, but if things went down in the way students claim, the shuttering of the paper was part of a collection of actions that may have violated a California law protecting the free expression rights of students at private colleges.
The latest action has only further solidified the public's perception that the school's leadership is trampling on basic notions of free expression and academic inquiry.
"They are an art school in a very liberal-progressive community that's making a lot of money from its students," Aaron Rodriguez, who was editor of the academy's Starving Artist newspaper until it was shut down, told the Bay Guardian. "The role of an artist is to exercise our free speech, maybe more than others. I feel like the school does a lot to say they encourage free speech and expression. But when it came down to it, instead we were reprimanded."
Sparking the fire
The current conflict dates back to November of last year, when a student in a writing class turned in a piece of short fiction that stretched conventional boundaries by vividly depicting page after page of murder and rape. When his teacher raised concerns about the story, the school's bosses swung into action, contacting the police, who contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Within the course of a week, the student was thrown out of school and flown home to Seattle.
His teacher, local poet Jan Richman, later lost her job, and her struggle for a new contract was hampered by the fact that she, like most of the academy's instructors, was working on a short-term contract. So the school didn't have to have a reason to fire her she was simply not rehired. Richman tried to draw attention to the problem, but it wasn't until pop culture teacher Alan Kaufman saw the school similarly treat another student that word of the expulsion and Richman's dismissal came to light (see "Expelling Edgy Writers," 4/14/04).
Kaufman (who now joins Richman among the school's "not rehired" former staffers) took on the cause as a mission, galvanizing concern among internationally known writers and planting the seeds of a nascent student movement. When the school blocked him from bringing guests into his classes to speak about censorship, Kaufman held class in the street and called for a student walkout.
When tensions between Kaufman and the administration grew, San Francisco Board of Supervisors president Matt Gonzalez offered to help, and in the middle of Kaufman's sidewalk class school vice president Sue Rowley agreed to participate in a mediation.
Soon after, a group of students created a Web site and began meeting and crystallizing their demands, honing in on the need for an elected student government that could be used as a forum to discuss and mediate future conflicts and that could give students a voice with the administration.
As things reached a boiling point, Rodriguez, who said he had agreed "unofficially" to keep the content of the newspaper focused outside of the school, felt compelled to put out an issue of the Starving Artist focused on the protests.
"We formed the paper as a voice about issues concerning the local community and the country at large," he told us. But then, he said, "We felt like what's going on at the school is directly related to the world [and] we felt the protest was too big of an issue to ignore."
Fanning the flames
Rodriguez, who graduated from the academy last month, said he approached the administration and, after some discussion, it was agreed he could cover the protests. He ran the stories by administrators for approval before publishing the paper, which he said was to have been a special double issue featuring articles giving each side of the story. But at the last minute, he said, he was told he would have to print the issue in two parts instead.
Part one of the issue featured a photo of a student with his mouth taped shut wearing a sign that read, "At the Academy of Art ... Students = Credit Cards." The main headline, printed in smudged block letters screamed, "Safety from What?" And the main story, an opinion piece authored by Rodriguez, compared the school's fear of its students with the federal government's fears of its citizens in the wake of 9/11. As he wrote, "4-20-99 [the date of the Columbine High School shootings] is the educational system's equivalent of what the United States of America experienced on 9-11-2001."
After the 1,000 copies of the issue were printed, Rodriguez and others began distributing the paper around the school. But after a high-level administrator was seen confiscating some of the papers, the paper's faculty advisor told Rodriguez he was keeping 500 copies, leaving the students with just half of the original run. Then, according to Rodriguez, he said there would be no part two, and no more Starving Artist. The paper was shut down.
Not all of the students involved feel slighted, but none of them disputed the facts as presented by Rodriguez. Starving Artist writer Phillip Schwartz, for example, said he felt the school had the right to do what it wanted with the paper, since it was providing the funding. But to experts in the rights of student newspapers that we spoke to, the case is an egregious example of censorship.
"That sounds like something you might see on the campus of the University of Beijing, not downtown San Francisco," Mike Hiestand, an attorney and legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., told us when he heard the story. "What's the school afraid of? It's a newspaper story there will be some good news and bad news, that's how it goes."
Academy attorney Ephraim Margolin won't concede that things happened exactly as Rodriguez says. He told us he believed that there was no intention of ever publishing part two.
"The issue is totally one-sided, and there is no notice there will be a second issue, because no issue was planned," Margolin said, even though the header of the paper says the issue is "part 1 of 2." Because of that, he said, it "may not be fair play, which is protected.... It may not be as clear as you make it to be."
By contrast David Greene, an attorney with the First Amendment Project in Oakland told us the situation is pretty clear-cut. "I think the confiscation [and] shutting down the club was a direct violation of California law," Greene said, pointing out that California is unique in having a law that gives private college students the same free speech rights that the First Amendment gives to public university students.
"The law prohibits a private institution from having a policy that disciplines students for exercising free speech rights," Greene said. "Whether it was one-sided or not has no bearing on how the [law] is applied."
Beyond that, Greene said, the way educational institutions treat their students has a ripple effect on society. "Student press getting hassled by administrators is not uncommon at all. But whenever it happens on a university level it's particularly distressing because you hope they understand it's a place where [people are becoming adults]. And as adults they should be encouraged to question their government."
Containing the blaze
Through each of these crises, the academy has defended itself by alternately avoiding questions from the media and offering character assassinations and threats to those involved, several sources said. And the administration still hasn't scheduled its promised mediation. In a recent hour-long conversation with Margolin, the attorney spent more time tearing apart Kaufman (for his strident style of protest, among other things) than he did explaining how the school plans to remedy the situation.
"You have 7,200 students [at the school]. You are talking about two or maybe three students. A tremendous issue was made of those two students. The media became party to an effort to destroy the school," he said. "I can tell you the majority of the student body is not in sympathy, because they are busy working and graduating and they never raised the issues Alan [Kaufman] raised."
But Starving Artist designer Adnan Lotia said that while it's true the paper represents the views of a small group of students, the issues raised by them impact the entire student body.
"I feel like [the first expulsion] was probably justified, but the way students found out about it is the larger problem. Any kind of mystery or situation where students feel like they're not getting the truth is very volatile," Lotia said, adding that he felt the administration wasn't malicious, but closing the paper only exacerbated the sense of unease among students that began with the expulsions.
"I'm sure ultimately all of this is a misunderstanding, [but] it's a question of how far an institution is justified in protecting itself," Lotia said. "I don't feel as if the argument is over."
And for many members of the writing and arts community, Margolin's assertion that the public shouldn't be concerned with "a private art school that seems to have a very small problem" just doesn't fly.
San Francisco author Daniel Handler (better known by his children's-book pseudonym Lemony Snicket) has been involved since Kaufman invited him to discuss free speech in his classroom back in April. Handler says what happens at the school has an impact on the entire art world.
"I see the Academy of Art, like the MOMA and like poetry slams that are held in cafés, as just part of the citywide art scene, that is in turn part of the national art scene and we take care of each other," he said. "If it is in fact a small matter, it seems it would be pretty easy for the administration to clean it up."
E-mail Rachel Brahinsky