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    Art or porn? USF opts not to fight

    The school agrees to pay $25,000 to a student who says she was sexually harassed when a graduate assistant showed an explicit photo in art class.

    By KEVIN GRAHAM

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 4, 2001


    TAMPA -- The photograph of the black man and white woman having sex was shown to the University of South Florida art students as part of a discussion on controversial art.

    To artist Derek Washington, it was artistic expression.

    To Nicole Ferry, one of the 250 students in class that day, it was pornography. Ferry sued USF, Washington and art instructor Diane Elmeer in federal court, claiming sexual harassment.

    Rather than wage a legal battle over scholastic freedom, censorship, art and pornography, the school has agreed to pay Ferry $25,000 as part of a settlement reached in May, seven months after the suit was filed.

    Ferry could not be reached Tuesday. R.B. Friedlander, a lawyer for USF, said the settlement details are confidential, and declined to comment.

    The photograph by Washington, a graduate assistant, shows his back and a pair of white hands clutching his buttocks. A pair of white legs can be seen, feet raised in the air.

    Washington, who said Tuesday that the sex was simulated, is angry USF has agreed to settle the lawsuit.

    "This came down to a business issue," he said, "and I just don't think money should supersede ethics. There's a chilling effect at this university as an artist."

    Washington said Elmeer, the class instructor, had asked him to bring an example of controversial art for discussion that day in September 1999. He said students were warned that some images may be offensive and were told they could skip the presentation or leave at any time without being penalized.

    He said Ferry stayed for the presentation. She later told her father, Jay Ferry, about the photograph titled, "N----- Lover." (The St. Petersburg Times is dashing out the first word of the title because it is a racial epithet.)

    Outraged, Jay Ferry wrote to the school, "I am not an art critic and loathe censorship, but from my perspective, in the name of education and art, you have exposed my daughter to crude and disgusting pornography."

    USF officials reassigned Washington. But that prompted the 250 students in his classroom to protest in the courtyard of USF's administration building. He returned to the classroom a week later.

    Mr. Ferry wrote another letter, on Nov. 5, 1999, accusing Elmeer of "evoking the protest." He said his daughter was being vilified.

    "As the class left, (Nicole) had to sneak away from the crowd and by the time she called me, she was severly shaken emotionally and sobbing. I cannot describe to you how devastated I was to be that helpless to my child in her time of extreme need."

    Nicole Ferry, an art major, did not return for a second semester at USF. A representative of Flagler College said she took classes there during the spring and fall semesters of 2000. She was not enrolled for spring 2001 classes, but has requested reinstatement for this fall, according to Flagler.

    Washington, still a graduate assistant, is teaching a painting class at USF.

    Ronald Jones, the dean of USF's College of Fine Arts, said the settlement was not an admission of wrongdoing.

    "If one dollar of that were viewed as an acknowledgement that there was wrongdoing or an inappropriate type of instruction taking place, I certainly would object," he said. "For us as an institution, not to present that type of work, I think would be something far more worthy of a lawsuit."

    Eleven years ago, students protested when an exhibit of provocative photographs of men and women was removed from a display case in a public hallway across from the art department's office door.

    The school organized a panel discussion on the decision to remove the photographs, which were displayed during the discussion.

    The question of academic freedom at USF is one that faculty Senate President Nancy Jane Tyson said hasn't been a problem. But with a recent overhaul of the the state's university system, Tyson is unsure of the climate.

    "We're in such a transitional state that I'm not sure where we stand in terms of academic freedom," she said. "It's certainly an issue. But we're in limbo right now."

    -- For those who want to view the photo, it can be found on Washington's Web site at http://electronic.arts.usf.edu/derek/index.html. It is sexually explicit and may be considered offensive.

    - Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kevin Graham can be reached at graham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3404.

    Recent coverage

    USF art teaching assistant reinstated (November 10, 1999)

    USF students rally behind provocative art teaching aide (November 5, 1999)

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