A trio of images designed to protest free speech violations has been removed from public view by Northern Kentucky University officials.
“First Class, Second Class,” created by Graphic Design Professor Hans Schellhas while he was still a student at NKU, consists of an image of a Klansman flanked by two smaller images of a woman and a black man. Schellhas said he created the trio of images after witnessing how Cincinnati Police handled race riots in 2003. The riots began after two black men died within a 24 hours of each other while in police custody.
“People don’t seem to have gotten the artist’s intended message from it, and they’re offended by the central character,” said Arne Almquist, W. Frank Steely Library provost. “They’re not seeing it in the way [the artist] intended it. They’re seeing it more as a statement of support for the Klan.”
While “First Class, Second Class” was displayed in the Eva G. Farris Reading Room at Steely Library with a collection of art that followed a social justice theme, no one complained to the library, Almquist said. But once it was moved from the exhibit and displayed alone, library visitors began complaining to the staff.
Almost immediately, Almquist said he had a very upset student come to his office asking why the library was supporting the Ku Klux Klan. He said he thought the student misunderstood the art because the artist’s statement had not been posted; but recent complaints were made with the statement explaining Schellhas’ experiences posted next to the art.
“We’ve taken it down temporarily,” Almquist said. “We’re regrouping and trying to determine how to best display it to put it in context.”
Professor Robert Wallace, one of the people who helped acquire “First Class, Second Class” from the artist, said he was surprised by the response to the art.
“[We] thought of it as an enhancement of the library environment,” Wallace said. “We didn’t imagine that so many people would be offended by it, or that they would think it would be in favor of the Klan.”
Almquist insists that removing “First Class, Second Class” is not a violation of free speech rights.
“If we were going to remove it and simply say that its gone, that would be censorship,” Almquist said.
The art has been moved to the Steely Library’s archives, where it can be viewed by request.
“We’re regrouping and trying to determine how to best display it to put it in context,” Almquist said. “We’re not saying we’re going to take this down and you’ll never see it again.”
Schellhas has not been available for comment.
Story by Cassie Stone