Banned in Glendale

Three pictures and a poem, published more than a year ago in a Glendale Community College literary magazine, have more than a dozen conservative Republican legislators demanding more than the right to determine what type art is acceptable.

Some now want the president of the college fired, along with the faculty who approved the art.

If not, the legislators say they will pursue other options, including auditing the college or monkeying with Glendale's state funding when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

And they want the material published in the Traveler removed from the college's Internet site. Immediately.

But college officials say they won't limit students' artistic expressions.

"We will not censor it. It's a learning venue," says Trish Vogel, GCC's coordinator of marketing and public relations. "The school stands behind the Traveler. We stand behind supporting students' First Amendment rights."

The material deemed offensive by legislators, published in the award-winning 2000 edition of the Traveler, includes a photograph of a naked male student, an illustration of a German Nazi concentration camp, a historical poem about the atrocities committed within concentration camps, and a photo titled "Just Like Suicide."

But the matter goes much deeper than a First Amendment battle over artistic freedom.

Two House members first raised questions about what they saw as questionable content in the magazine last summer.

Last month, 13 legislators met with school officials at the Capitol after they'd learned the work had been re-published on the college Web site. Most still believe they were misled because administrators had never told them the art was going on the Internet.

"These people have shown themselves to be irresponsible with public trust," says Representative Robert Blendu, a Republican. "You're dealing with a group of people who tell you one thing and do something else. To me, this is the worst kind of lie."

Senator Scott Bundgaard, a Glendale Republican, reviewed a copy of the 2000 Traveler sent to him as part of a complaint from a GCC faculty member.

"The leadership there has really crossed the bounds of reasonableness when it comes to not only accepting, but rewarding this kind of so-called art," Bundgaard says. "When they depict a woman slitting her wrist or a guy attaching clothespins to his genitals or depict the Holocaust as art, it really shows we've got some leadership problems at the college."

Bundgaard, 33, is not new to politics. He's a seven-year veteran of the Legislature. He readily acknowledges that he might be viewed by some as a right-wing headcase on an errant mission.

Asked whether he would censor other artistic works, such as those by Michelangelo, based on content or nudity, Bundgaard said there is a difference.

"I've seen the statue of David," the senator says. "He does not have any clothespins clipped to his 'nads."

Jim Kearns, the 25-year-old GCC student who took the nude picture of himself, says his critics missed the meaning. They overlooked the title, "Self-Portrait: Desire As Penitence," and misconstrued the symbolism.

Kearns says the image, as a whole, was inspired by his study of penitent Jesuit monks who practiced self-flagellation, as well as the Buddhist belief that all desire leads to suffering.

"In this case, the clothespins are attacking the most notorious organ of desire," Kearns says. "The clothespins also [represent] an idea of suppression."

His intent, obviously, was lost on the lawmakers.

Still, the college has made several changes to appease the Legislature.

Guidelines for submissions to the magazine have been drafted and are being reviewed by the college's legal staff. Community residents were added to the selection panel that reviews what work is displayed in the Traveler. Those two changes came after two House members, Karen Johnson and Linda Gray, met with GCC's president, Dr. Tessa Martinez Pollack.

Pollack was out of town and unavailable to comment for this story.

The college beefed up its Web site disclaimer after last month's meeting with lawmakers. The disclaimer, which people have to read and accept before viewing any back issue of the Traveler, states that some material might be considered of an adult nature.

None of the changes have been enough to satisfy the conservative lawmakers.

Now, lawmakers are stooping to the most basic of backyard-bully scare tactics. Besides demanding the termination of key college officials, the legislators are threatening the college's funding.

"I don't think we can fire them," says Blendu.

But if the administration is left intact, he says, "maybe other community colleges deserve the money."

For all their posturing, the band of concerned conservatives aren't as up to speed on the whole brouhaha as they should be.

• The college has received just three complaints about the contents of the magazine. Legislators say they have received more complaints, but typically point to just the one Bundgaard got from a GCC faculty member. Blendu can't say how many complaints he has received; other legislators also could not provide numbers.

But Blendu has been more than happy to drum up outrage.

"Everybody that finds out about it is offended," he says. "When I stood up in front of the group at Sun City West and let them know about it, they were incensed and wanted something done."

• Some of the legislators who are complaining have not actually seen the college's literary magazine or looked it up on the Internet.

Blendu says he has seen printouts of the questionable work. Johnson, who began this fight more than a year ago, is irate about the Web site but says she has no idea how difficult or easy it is to access the magazine online.

Bundgaard has looked both at a hard copy of the magazine and at the college's Web site. His concern is that children or younger students might stumble across what he deems pornography.

Still, he acknowledges the material is not readily available.

To actually find the four pieces of art in question on the Web site, a person has to know the year the issue came out, as well as the titles of the works or the artist's name. For the 2000 issue, there are more than 50 titles posted.

• The Legislature cannot fire employees of a community college. The college is accountable only to an elected five-member board, the Maricopa County Community College District Governing Board.

To date, the only complaints about GCC received at the board's headquarters have been from legislators. One is a letter from Bundgaard urging the board to hold the leadership at GCC accountable.

"I am unaware of any time in the history of the Maricopa Community Colleges where the board has specifically attempted to fire an administrator or a college leader," says Rick DeGraw, the agency's director of marketing. "In terms of auditing the colleges or reopening the state budget or punishing students, that's up to the legislators. If they feel that's what they should be doing for the betterment of education in Arizona, that's their choice."

Apparently, it is. Bundgaard says he has no intention of dropping the issue.

"If a majority of legislators believe the leadership of Glendale Community College is misappropriating taxpayer dollars and rewarding questionable art, then I believe we should take some sort of action," Bundgaard says. "It's obviously scrutinizing their expenditures, working on ways to hold the leadership there more accountable."

The manner in which Bundgaard and others have handled the issue has drawn questions from others in the Legislature who view the issue of GCC as a done deal.

"They're talking to the press about it," says Representative Bill Brotherton, a Democrat from central and west Phoenix, "which could leave some people with the impression they're more concerned with getting ink than actually dealing with what they say is a problem."

Brotherton was at last month's meeting. He says he hasn't heard a word about the issue since.

"Glendale's done what they said they were going to do," he says. "I think the community college has been very conscientious about living up to the commitments they made to the legislators at that meeting."

If the lawmakers want to examine GCC's budget, they have that right. Modifying the budget, however, might prove futile, if not impossible. They would need the approval of 16 House members, 31 Senators and the governor to make a change.

"There's nothing that prevents the Legislature from coming back in January, or even before, in special session, to review anybody's budget, including the community colleges," says Rob Dalager, director of operations for the Senate. "Accomplishing something is a much bigger task, in terms of making a change."

Dalager says legislators typically hold hearings to discuss a particular issue, examine its funding and ask whether the money is being spent wisely. Such a scenario could occur with GCC.

"That's probably more likely, I would think," he says, "than an actual change in the budget."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John W. Allman