American Flag Artwork Flying At KU Causes Political Flap

Jul 11, 2018
Originally published on July 13, 2018 2:55 pm

Update: Thursday afternoon, Secretary of State Kris Kobach called for the controversial flag artwork be removed from public display at the Spencer Museum of Art altogether. Gov. Jeff Colyer was the first to raise the issue in opening remarks during a gubernatorial debate Thursday evening, saying the artwork should be "sent back to sender" and that taxpayer-funded institutions, such as KU, should not be used as a venue to "desecrate our flag." 

Responding to criticism from elected officials and political candidates, University of Kansas officials have taken down an altered American flag displayed on campus as part of a nationwide art project.

KU Chancellor Douglas Girod issued the order late Wednesday after Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer learned of the flag exhibit and demanded its removal.

“The disrespectful display of a desecrated American flag on the KU campus is absolutely unacceptable,” Colyer said in a news release earlier in the day. “I demand that it be taken down immediately.”

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of Colyer’s rivals for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, jumped in quickly, calling in to Fox News radio and telling the Wichita Eagle he thought most Kansans would object to “flying a desecrated American flag and calling it art.”

Girod said public safety concerns prompted his decision to have the flag relocated from a prominent spot across from the student union to the confines of the Spencer Museum of Art, where, he said, “we can continue the important conversation it has generated.”

“While we want to foster difficult dialogue, we cannot allow that dialogue to put our people or property in harm’s way,” Girod said.

The first in a series of flags created by artists  for the “Pledges of Allegiance” project went up on the Lawrence campus last fall. KU is one of 14 participating locations across the country.

The controversial flag installed last week is the creation of German-born artist Josephine Meckseper. It’s overlaid with black shapes that, Meckseper says, represent America’s deep political divisions.

Kansas 1st District Republican Congressman Roger Marshall, a KU graduate, tweeted “this isn’t art, this is an embarrassment.”

State Sen. Marci Francisco, a Democrat whose district includes the university, said she didn’t find the exhibit offensive.

“It is clearly identified as art,” she said, gesturing to explanatory plaques positioned at the base of the flagpole.

“I think the university has a really strong purpose to allow freedom of discussion, freedom of speech and thought,” she said.

Steve Watkins, an Army combat veteran and Republican candidate for Congress in the eastern Kansas district that includes Lawrence and the university, went to campus to see the exhibit for himself and talk to reporters.

Calling the altered flag “extremely disrespectful,” Watkins stopped short of demanding removal. Instead, he said he hoped it would serve as a reminder of those who sacrificed to preserve the right to free speech.

“All I ask is that they (people who view the exhibit) thank a soldier … for helping create a world that things like this are even possible,” he said.

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.

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