Smashing victory over censorship at RPI and Troy

                                       Artist Wafaa Bilal with image from "Virtual Jihadi"

During the spring of 2008 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York the scheduled presentation of “Virtual Jihadi,” a piece of performance art by artist Wafaa Bilal, was banned by the university.   Mr. Bilal had been invited by the Department of Arts to show his work – a modified version of a first person shooter video game that depicts armed conflict in the Middle East – for the campus community.  Following a protest by the campus Republicans, Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer, decided that the work was not suited for campus viewing, and forbid the artist to show and discuss his politically controversial anti-war statement.  (I wrote extensively about this incident of explicit censorship in this blog during that period.)

As an alternative, the off campus Sanctuary for Independent Media located in north Troy, offered its auditorium for an evening showing.  Despite the presence of picket signs and protests outside the Sanctuary, the event to place in a fully packed house.  But the next morning, officials of the City of Troy arrived and locked the building, claiming that “code violations” made the place unfit for any social activity there.   Thus, Mr. Bilal’s art was censored a second time within a week.  Troy joined R.P.I. on the list of institutions eager to suppress constitutionally protected free speech.

It’s a long story, folks, but the long and the short of it is that the Media Alliance that operates the Sanctuary for Independent Media, filed a civil rights law suit against the City of Troy and won.  Part of the settlement involved an agreement for the Sanctuary and City to write a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts.  Today the news came through that the proposal had been awarded an NEA grant, one to be matched dollar for dollar by The City of Troy.  Here’s the message of the Sanctuary’s Steve Pierce about this astonishing outcome.  

Hi--  Good news!  Our federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Troy for shutting down an anti-war art exhibit at the Sanctuary in 2008 comes to a close today with the announcement of a grant award from the National Endowment for the Arts, to be matched dollar for dollar by $50,000 from the city as agreed in our settlement of the case (    If you're unfamiliar with the history, there's a great short documentary about what happened:  Thanks for all your support over the years...  --Steve 

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 At RPI, in Troy, New York and everywhere else, this a victory worth celebrating. 
Congratulations to Branda Miller, Steve Pierce and their colleagues who've made the Sanctuary for Independent Media such a lively place for art, education, community activity, media, and politics during the past decade.  

Note:  The documentary listed above is fabulous.  It should be required viewing for university and city officials who believe it would be a wonderful show of strength and moral character to censor political speech and works of art.  The stupidity of such measures is shockingly obvious.  Especially notable in the video are the absurd, laughable arguments in favor of censorship, especially the repeated insistence of RPI managers that Wafaa Bilal's provocative video presentation must be banned because it is equivalent to child pornography.