Student pushback to a number of political cartoons displayed in Ives Hall, and the alleged theft of one of the pieces, has prompted a discussion about freedom of speech and political discourse in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and around campus.
Gary Huck and Mike Konopacki, two of the leading labor cartoonists in the country, were invited to the ILR Labor Roundtable, hosted by the school on Nov. 13. The event is held annually to show students ways they can become professionally involved in the labor rights and social justice movements, and consistently features guest artists.
As in previous years, the artists’ work was installed in a temporary exhibit on the first floor of Ives Hall, but this year some of the pieces made students uncomfortable, leading some to request their removal, according to Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner, industrial and labor relations.
Students contacted student services to express their discomfort, particularly with two of the pieces: one featuring the GOP elephant with its trunk up a woman’s skirt and another with a swastika superimposed on the confederate flag, according to Bronfenbrenner.
“We’ve invited people who’ve been much more provocative than the two we invited this time,” Bronfenbrenner said, “but I think the times have changed so that people on the right are emboldened, because of perhaps by the Tea Party or others.” She added that “there’s a sense that the First Amendment doesn’t apply.”
Initially, staff responded that the the offensive pieces would be taken down, but ILR faculty stepped in to defend the protection of first amendment rights, according to Bronfenbrenner.
Kevin Hallock, dean of the ILR school, later issued a statement explaining the decision to leave the exhibit intact.
“Art can sometimes shock and be controversial, and the dialogue created can be important, especially in an institution like ours where the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental,” he said.
Likewise, some ILR students defended the associations drawn by the cartoons, saying they contribute to discussions of racism and sexism that are pertinent to the labor movement.
“The swastika is a symbol of hate, and it draws really powerful parallels to white supremacist hatred in the south and the ways in which that hatred has been mobilized using the confederate flag,” said Allison Considine ’17, one of the student organizers of the event.
In the past month, racial tensions and protests have erupted on a number of campuses around the country. Events at the University of Missouri have captured headlines, including stories of students using the swastika as a symbol of racial intimidation.
“I presumed the students at Cornell would be aware of these events since they have to do with the campus life of other students around the country and would be able to understand that I was trying to speak to current events as they were happening,” Huck said. “Cartoons are pretty much of the moment, so if you don’t know what’s going on in the world around you you’re going to not understand a lot of cartoons, or you’re going to misunderstand a lot of cartoons.”
As of Friday morning, the confederate flag work was missing from the exhibit.
“I allowed the University to display my work and it was treated with pronounced disrespect,” Huck responded.
Konopacki also expressed his “dismay” that the exhibit proved so controversial.
“I was very surprised that a school with such an esteemed reputation would be so squeamish about political speech,” he said.
At the heart of the artists’ frustration was that rather than engaging with the subject matter, students opted to shut down the conversation.
“The person who took the cartoon was not without an avenue of dissent, but they chose to end the conversation by removing the cartoon,” Huck said. “Being offended is not the worst thing to happen to you. Being offended is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of a conversation.”
The pair plans on including their experience with political discomfort on Cornell’s campus in future cartoons and will reflect on it in their discourse with other audiences.
“That is exactly the way to have this conversation; lots of voices weighing in and everyone gets their voices heard,” Huck said. “That’s how freedom of speech works, and that is a great thing. That is the single greatest thing about this nation — that is what makes America America.”