When I first heard about the images at the center of a controversy in Holyoke, I felt conflicted.
After all, the Valley Advocate has a long tradition of defending the right to free expression. Whenever free speech comes under attack, particularly in our own back yard, we feel a duty to bring attention to the situation, to give our readers a view not only of the specific speech in question, but of those attempting to suppress it.
That said, the Valley Advocate doesn't publish every word or image that its staff or freelance correspondents produce or that it receives from outside sources. The material that makes it into the paper each week has survived fairly rigorous scrutiny; in the end, we reject far more —endless press releases; mountains of op-ed pieces; scads of political cartoons; product pitches; a suprising number of unsolicited manuscripts and artworks from fledgling writers; staff-written pieces that need more work before they'll see the light of day—than we accept.
So when I heard about the troubles of Holyoke artist James Bickford and the decision by the activist group Citizens for the Revitalization and Urban Success of Holyoke (C.R.U.S.H.) to remove a series of his images from its public forum, claiming that the images constituted a form of "harrassment," I groaned. I suspected that although Bickford's images would fall completely under the protection of the First Amendment, they would also be highly offensive, perhaps lewd and probably gratuitous. I braced myself for the disagreeable job of defending something disagreeable.
When I saw Bickford's art—images of three Holyoke city councilors that he'd modified using computer software—I laughed. The images are, without doubt, pure political parody, exactly the sort of stuff aimed at elected officials of every stripe in America since the earliest days of the Republic. I was amused that any politician would be thin-skinned enough to complain about them, silly enough to draw further attention to the artist and his message.
But as City Councilor Patti Devine, the official who publicly objected to the images and pressured C.R.U.S.H. to remove them under threat of litigation, told the Springfield Republican, "This is no laughing matter..." On that point and that point only, I agree with Councilor Devine.
Devine not only took her case directly to C.R.U.S.H. in an email alerting the group of her displeasure and warning them of possible litigation, but also reached out via that email to community leaders to ask for a boycott of any event involving C.R.U.S.H.: "We are asking that the Chamber of Commerce, the Latino Chamber of Commerce and the Holyoke Taxpayers Association ban CRUSH from their sponsorship of the upcoming October debates. ... Please feel free to forward this to your contacts and boycott any events sponsored by this group CRUSH."
The activist group's steering committee eventually voted to remove the images. While the group expressed reluctance to censor one of its members, it noted, "While it was well within the rights of C.R.U.S.H. to remove them for any reason, these three images were found to fit squarely within the description of 'harassing.'"
Bickford, meanwhile, has continued to do what he does: writing and making art about the political issues dear to him. His photo spoof of Devine, he says, came out of his concerns "about her obstructionist and anti-progress motives" on a number of issues, including her opposition to an ordinance that would have allowed Holyoke residents to keep chickens. He has moved the images censored by C.R.U.S.H. to a new site: hush.fluxmass.org.