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Commentary

My view of the Noose Incident
Steven M. DeLue, political science

Editor’s note: Commentary provides university faculty and staff an opportunity to express their opinions in The Miami University Report. Contributions should be no longer than 500-600 words in length and should be directed to Bill Houk (physics), houktw@muohio.edu. Published commentaries also will be posted online at www.muohio.edu/townsquare/commentary.


The noose incident was a time to concentrate on the requirements of artistic freedom, and, in addition, it offered a moment to reconfirm, as democratic citizens, our civic obligation to protect political speech. This incident became a threat to artistic freedom as soon as the administration instituted a formal investigation of the participating students and faculty, despite the fact that an initial review demonstrated no intention upon anyone’s part to intimidate African Americans.

The most chilling aspect of these investigations, however, is that they may be used to justify punishment for classroom-based artistic activities which by law are protected. Moreover, since the issue at the center of this matter was the appropriateness of a symbol in an art work, a symbol bristling with various political messages, the administration’s strategy also risked denying full political speech to the involved parties. Why take this risk? Why limit speech? Why not enlarge speech? This could have been achieved by holding a series of public forums on why the noose is such an offensive symbol to many. Here is what might have been said there.

“There were 5,000 recorded cases of lynching, and the preponderance of those who committed these murders escaped prosecution. So that you understand the lived reality of this crime, let me describe a typical lynching. Imagine an African American, wrongfully accused and denied all due process of law, his eyes filled with terror, sitting on a horse and around his neck is a noose attached to a tree limb above him. A mob watches in a festive mood. Now, imagine that several white men, hate-filled sneers on their faces, torture him prior to prodding the horse forward. Afterward, the dead man’s body is set afire as the mob cheers. A picture of the event is featured on a postcard that is sent to friends and relatives. Now, in this context, let’s look at the artist’s use of the noose. Newspaper accounts said the student artist intended the swing to depict the joy of youth and the noose the end of life. How is it possible to associate the inevitably of death with a noose? Most people don’t die like the African American I described. But when they do, we better remember these moments and use this memory as a basis for establishing a moral imperative to prevent, ever again, the reoccurrence of white America’s barbarous past. But if we conflate death by the noose with natural death, how will this be possible?”

In a forum dedicated to discussing this matter, a range of arguments would be presented, and people after deliberating carefully on them would make up their own minds. If our classrooms are to be genuine places of discovery and inquisitiveness, we must demand nothing less.

Moreover, we should never forget that without unrestricted political speech it would not have been possible to arrive at the currently accepted broad consensus that the noose must always remain a political symbol of our nation’s shameful, racist past. Free, open and equally protected political speech is absolutely indispensable to an enlightened, democratic society. Without this, matters of importance will be solely decided by the wealth or social position of some of the speakers rather than by what should count the most, which is the quality of the arguments. Surely, this is one of the most significant things a student learns at a fine university, like Miami, isn’t it?

Date Published: 12/13/2007
Volume: 27   Number: 12

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