An art student retweeted a sexually explicit Japanese-style cartoon — known as hentai — on their personal, pseudonymous Twitter account and was subsequently investigated and expelled.
Ash Mikkelsen was an incoming student at Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) until another student complained about an image Mikkelsen retweeted (the image in question is not the same one at the top of this article). Mikkelsen didn’t tag the university or anyone from the university community in the tweet, and didn’t send it to anyone connected to the university — it was simply a retweet.
A student who saw the retweet complained to KCAI administrators, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported, and the school opened an investigation, claiming Mikkelsen violated the Student Code of Conduct. Assistant Dean of Students Joe Timson sent Mikkelsen a letter on June 15 wanting to speak about “content on social media that has contributed to the development of a hostile environment and reflects potential Sexual Harassment.”
Mikkelsen met with Timson that same day to discuss the allegations. Just 14 days later, on June 29, Timson informed Mikkelsen they were being expelled. Mikkelsen, according to FIRE, was given no meaningful chance to dispute the allegations, but was given five days to appeal. Mikkelsen sought help from FIRE’s legal defense fund in an effort to overturn the expulsion.
“This experience has left me feeling angry, but more importantly, disappointed,” Mikkelsen said in a statement posted by FIRE. “I’m fighting back to show that it’s not acceptable to punish students for what they say, do, or make — even if the administration doesn’t like what that protected activity encompasses.”
FIRE noted that KCAI expelled Mikkelsen for a non-Title IX hostile environment sexual harassment offense under its Student Code of Conduct, but that no definition of sexual harassment exists in that code. Further, the organization noted, Mikkelsen’s tweets don’t meet the legal definition of sexual harassment, which says discriminatory conduct must be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
Retweeting hentai wouldn’t meet that definition, FIRE insisted.
“Art history is full of censors, but today KCAI is the one holding the fig leaf,” FIRE Program Officer Sabrina Conza said in a statement. “Instead of protecting artistic expression — as it promises to do — the art institute pried into Ash’s personal life in order to find a reason to be offended and then concocted a scheme to expel them. People are offended by all sorts of artistic expression. But offense alone doesn’t justify censorship — especially by an art school.”
KCAI is a private university, so it’s not bound by the same constitutional protections as a public university, but as FIRE noted, the school is morally and contractually required to uphold its own policies.
“As a veteran and as an American, I’m protective of my rights — they are something my friends fought and died for,” said Mikkelsen, a Marine Corps veteran. “So for KCAI to so frivolously tread on them leaves me worried for the future of other artists like me.”