Art school toughens student speaking rules

Last month, an art school in Kansas City, Missouri cracked down on speech, passing a new policy that governs student social media posts. But a national free speech organization says the guidelines go too far in regulating student speech.

The Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) has updated its online speech code for students to prohibit “bullying” and any communication that may “intentionally or unintentionally” inflict “distress on others.” The school has not expressly defined what it considers bullying under the guidelines. In response, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights of Expression (FIRE) said the school was “seeking to create more space to punish students for their speech.”

Less than two months ago, administrators expelled — and later re-enrolled — a student after receiving complaints about inappropriate social media posts. Ash Mikkelsen posted sexually explicit Japanese cartoons, commonly referred to as hentai, on his Twitter page. As a private institution, KCAI is not subject to the First Amendment. But once FIRE petitioned the school on Mikkelsen’s behalf, KCAI reinstated him, underscoring the school’s pledges to support “free speech and open assembly.”

Founded in 1885, KCAI offers immersive studio programs on a small, quaint campus within walking distance of the famed Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It also endorses progressive diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives, pledging to “integrate diversity and anti-racist language into college-wide student learning outcomes” and support a “plurality of voices and perspectives. The school’s last four exhibitions of student work each featured several works including nudity and inappropriate language and are still published online.

Sabrina Conza of FIRE told the school in a July 7 letter regarding Mikkelsen’s expulsion: “The fact that KCAI is an art school punishing a student for promoting artistic expression makes the offense of all the more blatant.”

College Pulse and FIRE recently completed a student survey of school speech policies at more than 200 colleges, ranking them from best to worst. Not only are the 5 worst schools for free expression arts schools, but 3 of the 5 also have Ivy League status.

Kayleen C. Rice