When Vermont Law School (VLS) released a plan to cover a 1993 campus mural with acoustic tiles, the last thing the administration expected was to be taken to court by the artist. VLS’s decision responded to student criticism of the mural’s caricature-like depictions of African Americans and its emphasis on White saviorism. The mural, “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave,” which consists of two eight-feet-by-24-feet panels painted by Sam Kerson in 1993, was designed to address Vermont’s role in the liberation of enslaved people. The first panel, with vignettes of punishment, auction, and forced labor, also shows a crowd of African Americans holding drums, masks, and spears. The second panel depicts famous abolitionists and features, in a particularly prominent role, a White woman blocking a man tracking down escaped enslaved people. In December 2020, Kerson decided to sue the school, claiming its plan violates the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) which protects art from “intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification.”
This certainly isn’t the first controversy over a historical mural at an educational institution. Two years ago, the San Francisco School Board reversed their decision to paint over murals labelled offensive, instead opting to cover them with panels. That plan was recently halted in order to conduct an environmental impact review, so with a legal ruling on the horizon, the VLS mural debacle is likely to be precedent-setting when it comes to public display of controversial artwork in schools.
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In defense of his mural, Kerson contends that VLS is “using the smoke screen of student complaints” to, “be the arbiter of what the public is allowed to see,” a line of thinking which misleadingly focuses the conversation on the issue of censorship. Kerson is free to produce as much art expressing his views as he wants. In fact, he’s already created a new series of paintings called “The Muralist Imagines the Destruction of His Works,” referencing the mural at VLS. The plan to cover the mural doesn’t censor Kerson by prohibiting him from producing work nor does it permanently destroy the mural. VARA legal protections are meant to preserve the ideas embodied in art and protect the artist’s integrity, not ensure that the artwork can be viewed forever. As the lawyers representing VLS cleverly pointed out, nowhere in VARA does it mention that an artwork must remain viewable.
The more crucial issue this controversy brings to light is the means employed by academic institutions to foster more inclusive campus cultures, especially through the visual arts. Although we tend to think that schools maintain particular viewpoints and aesthetic tastes perpetually, that’s not always the case. Many public murals and monuments, notably Confederate-era statues across the United States were once considered acceptable by many. Now this is less true. If viewpoints throughout the country can change within a generation, they certainly can evolve over 30 years at a law school with shifting demographics. With increasing student diversity, schools have become more responsive to questions of inclusivity and representation, particularly for communities that have been historically marginalized. Academic institutions recognize that adapting visual media on campuses to represent the current viewpoints and identities of their students necessitates reflection and change.
Many students had expressed surprise at seeing the VLS mural displayed in an institution that claimed to be welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds. Commenting on his first time seeing the mural, student Jameson Davis wrote in an email “I was shocked, because Vermont Law School prides itself on being focused on inclusion and open-minded learning, yet they had a mural depicting slavery in this insensitive and demoralizing way.” A petition for the mural’s removal signed by a coalition of Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) students and White allies stated that some BIPOC students find the mural so dispiriting they avoid that area of campus entirely. Should we really expect students to insulate themselves against a section of their campus due to the censorship claims of an artist whose work has already been displayed for nearly 30 years?
As societal views on race, colonization, and American history shift, more debates over controversial artwork will no doubt emerge. Setting the precedent that VARA permits institutions to cover murals is legally sound (as expected from a law school) and provides schools with a way to resolve similar dilemmas in the future. Free speech is a fundamental right that should be protected. VLS’s decision, though, is not about the censoring of speech. It’s a case of a school taking a necessary action to create a more conscientiously inclusive campus than the one they had previously.