Measured victory for student art gallery at Wichita State, but free speech concerns remain

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Wichita State University’s ShiftSpace student art gallery has had its funding cut after criticizing a student senator on social media. (Photo courtesy of Ulrich Museum / Facebook.com)

by Graham Piro

May 13, 2022

A qualified victory for free speech for a student-run art gallery at Wichita State University, reported earlier this monthraises questions about the speech rights of other students who are critical of the school’s student government.

Wichita State Supreme Student Court canceled student government decision to snatch funds from a student-run art gallery ShiftSpace after the group criticized a student senator. At the off-campus, student-run art gallery, students tackle “all gallery roles including curator, curator, community outreach coordinator, social media manager, etc.

On April 1, ShiftSpace critical Wichita State Student Government Association Fine Arts Senator John Kirk in a Facebook post. His criticisms took aim at Kirk’s comments during a Senate meeting regarding budget cuts previously imposed on the gallery, and made it clear that ShiftSpace viewed Kirk’s comments as unnecessary to the gallery.

“It’s the support we get from our fine arts senator, John Kirk. He is a candidate for re-election. Let’s show him how ignoring and neglecting an important part of his constituency affects his poll results,” ShiftSpace wrote in a Facebook post.

As a public university, Wichita State is bound by the First Amendment.

The gallery later edited the post to remove the review, but it was too late. SGA said ShiftSpace, “as a university entity”, violated a Politics stating that “no faculty or staff member may use University resources to support specific applicants”.

But ShiftSpace’s message was protected speech. That means Wichita State can’t punish the group for the job. As we argued in our April 28 letter at University:

First Amendment standards for student speech should apply here in that ShiftSpace’s description specifically lists “social media manager” as a role a student fills, and it’s abundantly clear that the post on Facebook is therefore from a student, not a faculty or staff member. As the speech is protected in the sense that it does not fall under any of the “historical and traditional categories” of unprotected speech such as obscenity, libel, incitement and combat speech, it cannot constitutionally be punished for none of the reasons advanced here.

“It is inappropriate to punish ShiftSpace under a policy involving the speech of Wichita State faculty and staff, as it would be based on a misunderstanding of the organization and operation of ShiftSpace,” our letter continued. . “Furthermore, punishing a student-run gallery for protected speech by revoking its funding, thereby threatening its very existence, is a gross violation of ShiftSpace’s First Amendment rights.”

As a public university, Wichita State is bound by the First Amendment and is further committed “to preserving and supporting freedom of thought, speech, and expression on our campuses,” according to its free speech policy.

The SGA’s own policies similarly emphasize the importance of freedom of expression:

As citizens, students enjoy the same freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and right to petition as other citizens and, as members of the university community, they are subject to their obligations under this membership.

FIRE urged the SGA to reconsider its decision. If he didn’t, we called the university, or the SStudent Government Association Supreme Courtto intervene to ensure that the art gallery does not lose funding for engaging in constitutionally protected speech.

SGA Supreme Court reversed the SGA’s decision and voted to restore funding to ShiftSpace. While this represents a victory for free speech, it is a nuanced victory, as the court determined – we believe erroneously – that ShiftSpace did indeed violate SGA policy, but merely incurred a too severe a sentence for having done so.

This is not the first time the SGA Supreme Court has had to intervene to overturn SGA decisions. At the end of last year, in a unanimous decision, the court determined that the SGA Senate unconstitutionally denied recognition of a Turning Point USA campus chapter. The SGA Supreme Court also intervened when the SGA refuse official recognition to a potential Young Americans for Liberty chapter in 2017 due to the group’s perspective.

We are encouraged that ShiftSpace will continue to receive funding.

Student organizations should not be forced to appeal to the SGA Supreme Court every time the SGA wrongfully punishes protected expression. Instead, the SGA should pull itself together and begin to recognize and enforce the First Amendment rules under which it operates.

Although the court determined that ShiftSpace violated SGA policy, we are encouraged that ShiftSpace will continue to receive funds. But it’s high time the SGA stood up for the free speech rights that the First Amendment, the State of Wichita, and the SGA promise students in Wichita State.


This blog has been updated to clarify that the SGA Elections Committee, not the Student Senate, was responsible for removing funding from ShiftSpace after Shiftspace was posted on Facebook.

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