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Art Student Whose Show Was Nixed Files Suit Against Penn State

April 26, 2007 By:
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Penn State student Joshua Stulman points to artwork that the school prohibited him from displaying. Photo courtesy of The Daily Collegian/Daniel Freel
Claiming that his reputation has been damaged and that his First Amendment rights were violated, a former art student at Penn State University is suing the institution over the cancellation of his painting exhibit, which depicted anti-Semitism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in Palestinian society.

Joshua Stulman, a 24-year-old native of Elkins Park, found himself at the center of controversy last year when a school administrator decided to call off the display of Stulman's series of 10 paintings -- called "Portraits of Terror" -- that were inspired by photographs, news articles and his own research. Stulman has said that he hoped the artwork would give viewers a broader understanding of the fanaticism that drives acts of terror, as well of its appropriation of Nazi imagery and ideas.

At the time, Charles Garoian, director of the school of visual arts at Penn State, said that the artwork could be deemed offensive to Muslims and other students, and violated the school's "zero-tolerance policy for hate."

On April 17, Jerome Marcus, one of the attorneys representing Stulman, filed a federal suit in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, claiming that Penn State had violated the artist's freedom of expression. They're also alleging that some of Garoian's comments at the time were defamatory.

Also named in the suit were university president Graham Spanier and art professor Robert Yarber. The suit alleges that Yarber tore down flyers advertising the "Portraits of Terror" exhibit, claiming that it was anti-Islamic, and harassed Stulman about his pro-Israel views.

"He's telling me that Israel is a puppet state for America ... he started calling me a racist," Stulman said in an interview last year.

Through a spokesperson, Lori Lowenthal Marcus, Stulman declined to comment for this story.

Lowenthal Marcus, who is married to Jerome Marcus, is president of the Greater Philadelphia District of the Zionist Association of America, although she said that the group is not involved in this lawsuit.

Stulman, now a graduate student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, is suing for both monetary damages and the chance to show his work on campus.

University officials -- who released a statement of apology a week after the exhibit cancellation -- tell a different story.

"The student was invited to display his artwork on campus last year, and the offer was also made for this year. He decided not to," wrote Penn State spokeswoman Jill Shockey in an e-mail, before adding, "not having a chance to review the lawsuit, I don't think I can say more at this time."

According to Lowenthal Marcus, the university would only agree to host "Portraits" if Penn State Hillel would withdraw its involvement.

According to the suit, in the run-up leading to the event's cancellation, administrators objected to the fact that Hillel had "commissioned" the art exhibit. Hillel claims that in reality, it was only sponsoring an artist's reception, which it had done in the past for an earlier Stulman exhibit in the same space.

"The evidence will show that they only offered him an opportunity with conditions," according to Lowenthal Marcus. "They are trying to come up with an excuse for why they canceled the exhibit without it being the content of Josh's speech."

Matters of Safety?

Shortly after the initial cancellation, Gratz College in Elkins Park announced that it would offer a venue for "Portraits of Terror." But that never materialized, a fact that Lowenthal Marcus said spoke directly to the issue of defamation.

Gratz had planned to host the exhibit earlier this year, but administrators decided to cancel it after officers from both the Cheltenham and Philadelphia police departments apparently raised concerns over matters of security.

A spokesman for Gratz College declined to comment on the decision, as did a public-safety officer affiliated with the Cheltenham police.

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