by Jim McLean, Kansas News Service
Responding to criticism from elected officials and political candidates, University of Kansas officials have taken down an altered American flag displayed on campus as part of a nationwide art project.
KU Chancellor Douglas Girod issued the order late Wednesday after Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer learned of the flag exhibit and demanded its removal.
“The disrespectful display of a desecrated American flag on the KU campus is absolutely unacceptable,” Colyer said in a news release earlier in the day. “I demand that it be taken down immediately.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of Colyer’s rivals for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, joined in, telling the Wichita Eagle he thought most Kansans would object to “flying a desecrated American flag and calling it art.”
Girod said public safety concerns prompted his decision to have the flag relocated from a prominent spot across from the student union to the confines of the Spencer Museum of Art, where, he said, “we can continue the important conversation it has generated.”
“While we want to foster difficult dialogue, we cannot allow that dialogue to put our people or property in harm’s way,” Girod said.
The exhibit is part of a public art project begun last fall called “Pledges of Allegiance.” KU is one of 11 participating institutions at 14 locations across the country.
The controversial flag is the creation of German-born artist Josephine Meckseper. It’s overlaid with black shapes that, Meckseper says, represent America’s deep political divisions.
Kansas 1st District Republican Congressman Roger Marshall, a KU graduate, tweeted “this isn’t art, this is an embarrassment.”
State Sen. Marci Francisco, a Democrat whose district includes the university, said she didn’t find the exhibit offensive.
“It is clearly identified as art,” she said, gesturing to explanatory plaques positioned at the base of the flagpole.
“I think the university has a really strong purpose to allow freedom of discussion, freedom of speech and thought,” she said.
Steve Watkins, an Army combat veteran and Republican candidate for Congress in the eastern Kansas district that includes Lawrence and the university, went to campus to see the exhibit for himself and talk to reporters.
Calling the altered flag “extremely disrespectful,” Watkins stopped short of demanding removal. Instead, he said he hoped it would serve as a reminder of those who sacrificed to preserve the right to free speech.
“All I ask is that they (people who view the exhibit) thank a soldier … for helping create a world that things like this are even possible,” he said.
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.
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