(NEW YORK)– PEN America today said objections made over pieces of art in an exhibit at the State College of Florida—that led organizers to cancel it— were  “clearly political in nature” and cannot be separated from other censorship that is happening in the state.

The planned exhibition, curated by the group Embracing Our Differences, was pulled by the group organizing it this month after the SCF leadership requested several pieces be removed due to their “offensive” nature. SCF leaders also cited vandalism at other installments of the exhibition in Sarasota and concerns about violence on campus.

The pieces in question depicted Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter imagery; a group of pregnant women asking men, “Do We Not Have A Voice About Our Own Body?” and the quote: “Diversity and inclusion are like the needle and thread that stitch together the harmonious fabric of peace for humankind,” from a fifth-grade student in New Delhi. In response to the request to remove these pieces, Embracing Our Differences chose not to proceed with the display at the Manatee-Sarasota campus, which would have been part of a wider exhibition across Sarasota that has been held annually for 20 years.

The objections come on the heels of a widely-criticized statement from Florida College System presidents on January 18 – the system that includes SCF – which amounted to a voluntary adoption of an educational gag order, restricting speech about critical race theory and some diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on system campuses.

In response to the cancellation, Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, said:

“We applaud Embracing Our Differences’ integrity in the face of attempted censorship. The objections to the three pieces in question are clearly political in nature, and they run afoul of the tenets of artistic and academic freedom by which college campuses should abide. This comes in the midst of numerous efforts to investigate, discredit, or ban spending on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in Florida. It is inseparable from that broader effort. In asking an art organization to remove particular pieces of art, we see the same censorship at work that is coursing through schools and colleges; the effort undermines not only what can be read or taught in Florida’s public institutions, but what kind of art can be exhibited. Calling art that embraces diversity, the history of civil rights, and bodily autonomy “offensive”  is the antithesis of the values of higher education as an open marketplace of ideas.

The claim made by SCF that withdrawing these pieces was necessary because of a perceived potential for vandalism and violence is a thinly veiled excuse to justify state censorship. It’s a slippery slope when that kind of argument can be used to stifle free speech; especially when it comes to artistic expression. As Florida’s state leadership continues to attack the autonomy of higher education in the state, it is disappointing to see college leaders in the FCS system continue to do the dirty work for them.”

PEN America is leading the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a project to safeguard artistic freedom in the US and abroad.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057