The debate over the removal of controversial art from a San Jose school district office has reached the next level: lawyers.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California sent a letter Friday to the East Side Union High School District that urges its superintendent to rehang a series of 11 paintings by San Francisco artist Mark Harris. The pieces, which depict scenes of racial injustice and hung in celebration of Black History Month, were taken down after parents complained, according to district administrators.
"We're demanding this art depicting racial injustice be returned to the walls," the ACLU tweeted.
In a post on its website, the ACLU of Northern California wrote that for the past three years, the school district has celebrated Black History Month by displaying art that does the same. This year, Reverend Jeff Moore, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley Branch of the NAACP, chose Harris to provide some of his work for the exhibit, which he did.
"But the art was apparently intolerable for Superintendent Chris Funk. Despite lacking any school policy or constitutional basis for removal, he had 11 paintings removed just hours after they were displayed," the post read.
At the time, Funk's reasoning was that the district shouldn't take a political stance, which Harris called "ridiculous." Harris described the work as "agitprop" and intended the display to be thought-provoking.
"It’s not something you’re going to walk by and not have a second thought about,” Harris said.
In response, Funk said he was sorry that Harris was "caught up in a situation where Mr. Moore was not upfront" and that Harris was a talented artist.
"I didn’t have a chance to review the art beforehand. It was just — smack, hit you in the face — when you walked in. That’s why I took it down,” Funk said.
The ACLU's letter said that the organization appreciates the district's celebration of Black History Month, but Funk determining which views of African American life are "acceptable" is censorship.
"Given the richness of that history and the diversity of perspectives that experience has engendered, however, there is no one 'acceptable' way to represent this truth," the ACLU's letter read. "Additionally, it is unacceptable to refuse to permit speech or expression because it might offend some."
Beyond sending the letter to the school district, the ACLU has called on the public to phone Funk and tell him "that he doesn't get to decide what the black experience looks like."