The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio has asked the city of Dayton to apologize for removing student artwork from the Dayton Convention Center that claims to address stereotypes and hardships tied to the experience of women and black people.
The artwork was produced by ninth-grade students in the U.S. history class at the Dayton Regional STEM School.
The series of silhouettes depict protests, police encounters, the Black Lives Matter movement, hip hop and events including police fatally shooting John Crawford III at the Beavercreek Walmart.
The ACLU sent a letter to the city today asking it issue a public apology that acknowledges its obligation to protect the free speech of students and the public.
“Dayton is telling its young people that the answer to speech you don’t agree with is to silence the speaker,” said Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio. “If we really value free expression and teaching young people to think for themselves, we must be prepared for messages that are difficult to hear.”
Robin Williams, Dayton’s director of recreation, said the convention center received multiple complaints about the works and it has decided to no longer host public art exhibits.
“It is our responsibility to remain politically and socially unbiased to serve all of our citizens,” she said.
Ninth-grade students researched marginalized groups throughout U.S. history and created posters focused on women and African Americans that draw comparisons between the past and present, said Arch Grieve, the school’s community outreach director.
The students spent about a month researching women and minorities’ experiences and created posters exploring and questioning how stereotypes, police interactions, culture and protests have evolved and what has remained the same, he said.
The artwork was published online at drssmedia.wix.com/changes, which contains narratives explaining the ideas and context behind the pieces.
The Dayton Convention Center removed the artwork after it hung for about a week in February, which upset some students, Grieve said.
But city and convention center officials met with students and explained the city’s policies of not exhibiting political artwork, he said.
Representatives from Dayton’s Human Relations Council also met with students to have a dialogue about the concepts and ideas behind the art.
“We’re grateful for the city for not just saying, ‘No you can’t put it up,’ but taking time with the students to explain why it was taken down,” Grieve said.
But Link, with the ACLU, said the city’s removal of the artwork was an “inexcusable act of censorship.”
The ACLU sent the city a letter saying its actions were unconstitutional, and political speech and artwork are at the core of First Amendment expression and must be protected.
“The city of Dayton may not remove these students’ speech on the basis that some viewers do not like it, or because of its ‘political nature,’” wrote Freda Levenson, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio.
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