Shock waves from a controversial art exhibit displayed last fall at Linn-Benton Community College continued to reverberate Wednesday, with more than a dozen people urging the college to adjust a freedom of expression policy to prevent future such displays.
Members of the LBCC Board of Education voted 5-1, with Keith Frome dissenting and Linda Modrell absent, to move forward on a first reading of the policy as recommended by college administrators, which doesn't prohibit future potentially controversial art exhibits.
The college had suggested minor updates to the 35-year-old academic freedom policy, including a recommendation the board instruct administrators to come up with appropriate, permanent signs or methods of communicating that note intellectual and creative expression on campus "may often address mature concepts."
"We want people to understand artistic intent," President Greg Hamann said. "We want people to make informed choices. But we don't believe it's the institution's responsibility to protect people from what they don't want" to see or hear.
The artwork in question, installed last September in the North Santiam Hall Art Gallery, contained three works that depicted men performing sex acts, prompting complaints from some area residents.
The college moved the artwork away from the main gallery door and placed signs warning of sexual imagery, but did not remove the works, which led to criticism and anger from some residents, including Frome.
The college was already updating its policy on academic freedom as part of a four-year cycle of policy reviews. With a vote on the first reading expected Wednesday, Frome, who had voiced his disapproval of the public access to the display at earlier meetings, reached out to associates to seek support.
The proposed policy update does include the note about "mature content" signs, Frome said in an emailed letter that he asked be shared with all Linn County precinct committee persons. "However, there are no provisions to protect minors from seeing these images, nor are there provisions to allow students the right to NOT see these images," he wrote.
Frome recommended anyone who objects to the policy update to come to the board meeting and speak during the public comment period.
Twenty-five people in all testified Wednesday. Slightly more than half said the artwork on display last fall should either have never been allowed in the first place or at least kept to a restricted area with clear signs warning of the content, so minors and anyone who chose not to view it would not be exposed.
"Imagine watching TV with your four kids, or your kids, or your grandkids," said Cliff Wooten of Scio, who has seen generations of family members study at LBCC. If a graphic sexual display were to come of the broadcast, he said, "You don't sit there and watch it. You'll be jumping up and changing the channel. It's something that doesn't come up in a normal family setting."
Added Tracy Krebs of Lebanon: "The freedom to express is not the freedom to impose. Freedom, ladies and gentlemen, is choice. If you don't have choice, that is not freedom."
Other speakers, however, urged board members not to restrict artistic expression, no matter what form it might take.
"Everyone has the right and opportunity to view any and all art displays, or not," said Gail Pyburn of Albany, who has a student at LBCC. She called the right of a person not to see controversial artwork "patently ridiculous" and noted students at LBCC "are on a college campus ... not visiting Candyland."
Jen Pywell, a Corvallis artist, addressed earlier speakers' concerns that future enrollment, bond issues or other support might be in jeopardy if the college kept a policy allowing "vulgar" displays on campus.
"We should not censor students to secure funding," she said. "Different people have different responses. That's the core value, which is diversity."
Hamann said college administrators will now move forward on rules governing placement and signs, with a process to be in place before fall term starts.
Frome said following the meeting he was disappointed that Wednesday's vote to adopt the policy as presented did not address restricting access by minors. He said he recognizes the value of academic freedom, but added: "I don't believe there is academic purpose in a picture or image of graphic sexuality or sexual conduct."