PORTLAND, MAINE.- The University of Southern Maine has decided to cancel an art exhibit Friday that showcased the paintings of a prison inmate who killed a New Jersey state trooper 25 years ago and had cast himself as a political prisoner. Police said organizers of the exhibit, "Can't Jail the Spirit," painted an unfair picture of artist Thomas Manning, a self-styled revolutionary who committed a spate of bombings and is serving 80 years for the 1981 killing of Trooper Philip Lamonaco after a traffic stop on Interstate 80.
The President of the University, Richard L. Pattenaude, released the following letter:
I'm here to share with you the news that the exhibit "Can't Jail the Spirit: Art by 'Political Prisoner' Tom Manning and Others," will be closed effective the end of business today, Friday, September 8, and will be taken down.
I would like to offer several points related to this decision, but before doing so I want to reaffirm the University of Southern Maine's longstanding commitment to free speech, and our intent to serve as a neutral forum for the expression and discussion of ideasa mission of every university.
Why, then, the decision to close this exhibit? There are two fundamental reasons.
1. The purpose behind this exhibit was to initiate a discussion on the definition of the term political prisoner, and to encourage an examination of the nature of political dissent in a modern society. It has become increasingly clear that any reasoned discussion of ideas has been overshadowed completely by Mr. Manning's and Mr. Levasseur's criminal acts, and the pain and suffering they caused. Put another way, their backgrounds have impacted the exhibit to the point where the exhibit itself, and the purpose behind it, have become misunderstood and needlessly divisive. What was to be a forum has become a battleground. Academic freedom is a precious part of university culture but it is not being served by the current situation.
2. I've become alarmed about the increasingly intense criticisms leveled at this university and members of our staff, some of whom feel threatened. Our people have acted in good faith, but significant mistakes were made, and lessons have been learned. We just did not do our homework. I also want to stress that the law enforcement community has been very blunt and candid in expressing its concerns, but civil.
Where do we go from here?
As part of the exhibit, we scheduled an October symposium to discuss political prisoners and political dissent. That symposium will be held, but first I will ask the Faculty Senate to appoint a faculty work group and ask its members to create a format such that the symposium reflects what a university should do, and what we intended to do: Provide a rich, broad dialogue on important issues in a neutral forum with all viewpoints represented.
Lost in this controversy, is the fact that the exhibit also presents six works by students in an introductory sculpture class. They were assigned to create works which address political speech, freedom of expression and issues of power and powerlessness. In describing the results, Professor of Art Michael Shaughnessy clearly stressed, "Neither faculty nor students condone any act of violence nor any of Tom Manning's political actions and, in fact, question the contentions that his imprisonment is due to political beliefs." This statement was part of the exhibit. Although this exhibit will be closed, the student artwork will be displayed later in the semester in a different format.
Finally, on behalf of the University of Southern Maine, I want to apologize to the people of Maine and elsewhere for the fact that we did not understand earlier the criminal acts associated with this exhibit, nor the sense of outrage and depth of personal pain they generated. For that I am sorry.