At Tarleton State University in Texas, Heckler’s Veto Thwarts Student Performance

By on March 29, 2010

A student performance of an excerpt from Corpus Christi, a play positing Jesus Christ as a gay man, was canceled this past Friday at Tarleton State University (TSU) in Texas amid controversy and calls for censorship.

The performance of the excerpt, which was to be directed by TSU student John Otte, was scheduled to be held on Saturday morning as fulfillment of an assignment for an advanced directing class. Instead, Corpus Christi and three other student-directed plays, also scheduled for Saturday, were canceled by the class’s professor late Friday evening. The cancellation was announced by TSU in a statement, which read:

The four student-directed plays, including Corpus Christi, scheduled to be performed at Tarleton State University on Saturday, March 27, 2010, have been canceled this evening by the professor. The professor cited safety and security concerns for the students as well as the need to maintain an orderly academic environment as reasons for canceling the plays. The performance of these four class plays will not be rescheduled.

As reported by The Dallas Morning News last Tuesday, Otte’s selection of award-winning American playwright Terrence McNally’s play had prompted condemnation from fellow students and community members because of the play’s content. Shamefully, even Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst weighed in on the side of censorship, saying in a statement that "Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech, but no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans."

Fortunately, however, not all were so quick to forget the First Amendment’s protection of controversial expression. TSU President F. Dominic Dottavio recognized in a March 11 open letter that while TSU does not endorse the play, and while he personally found it "offensive, crude, and irreverent," TSU, as a public university, was "legally bound to allow the student production to go forward." Dottavio further wrote:

We have had many conversations with the Office of General Counsel for The Texas A&M University System and they have made it clear to us that this is an  unambiguous freedom of speech (First Amendment) issue. The Supreme Court of the United States has consistently held that public universities may not engage in the sort of censorship that prohibiting this student’s project would involve. This concept was reaffirmed by the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act which stressed that students should not be intimidated, harassed, or discouraged from speaking out. Like every citizen of the country, the student who chose to direct excerpts from the play enjoys his right to free speech. This right is protected by law even if the speech is offensive to others. But, again, it is important to understand that this is not the university’s speech; it is the student’s speech.

When actions and words are particularly offensive, the freedoms we enjoy can often lead to lively debate. As an educator, I believe the debate should be conducted with civility and respect. That is exactly what I expect from our Tarleton family and that is what I have seen from the campus community.

Despite Dottavio’s plea for a civil debate, Mark Haltorf, an assistant professor at TSU, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the university’s drama department received threats which prompted the cancellation:

"We received so many threatening calls and e-mails today across campus, the numbers were staggering. One administrator received in excess of 800 e-mails. Our department received calls of a threatening nature. I could not guarantee the safety of my students. The administration was truly behind the academic exercise, but I could not justify the safety risk."

In essence, then, the heckler’s veto seems to have successfully censored speech on campus in this instance, as security threats preempted protected expression. It is impossible for FIRE to know for certain if behind-the-scenes pressure from TSU administrators or elected officials like Lt. Gov. Dewhurst played some tacit role in the performance’s cancellation, but in any event, the show will not go on.

This particular silencing of speech is difficult for FIRE to fight. Had President Dottavio or another TSU administrator buckled to political pressure and cancelled the performance on his own, the First Amendment violation would be clear as dayjust as the university’s lawyers told him. But because the performance was an assignment for a class, and the decision to cancel this play and the others was made by the professor, First Amendment protections are not implicated in the same way. Generally speaking, a professor enjoys a great deal of pedagogical deference to control classroom speech, and for the most part may conduct class as he or she sees fit.

What’s more, if, as reported, violent threats were indeed being received, then cancelling the performance may have been sadly necessary to prevent injury.

Had the university not stood by its students’ right to free expression in the face of controversy and outrage, FIRE could have seen a reprise of our 2005 intervention on behalf of Washington State University student Chris Lee, whose Passion of the Musicala South Park-style musical parody of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christwas targeted for officially approved mob censorship by university administrators. In that case, WSU administrators actually purchased student hecklers’ tickets with university funds and organized a "protest" designed to disrupt the performance.

TSU President Dottavio, by comparison, was a model of restraint and fidelity to the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, his fellow citizens were not. That the performance was cancelled because of threats of violence is a deeply depressing development for respect for the First Amendment in Stephenville, Texas, where TSU is located. If TSU community members, local citizens, and even the state’s elected officials don’t understand that (1) the First Amendment exists precisely to protect speech that challenges widely held presumptions about politics, religion, and other issues of the day and (2) the answer to speech with which one disagrees is more speech, not violence or censorship, then the phenomenon we here at FIRE call "unlearning liberty" is advancing faster and further than we feared.

An excellent editorial published yesterday in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram gets it exactly right and is worth quoting at length:

Yes, the play’s premise is as offensive to some Christians as representing the prophet Muhammad as a dog is to some Muslims. But people in this country don’t have a constitutional right not to be offended.

With few exceptions, government doesn’t get to pick and choose which speech content it approves and which it censors. The hurdles that must be cleared before a public university, which is a government entity, can prohibit even offensive speech are high.

That often puts university officials in unenviable positions. Higher learning means that they should foster an environment in which a wide variety of ideas, even unpopular ones, can be freely debated. But allowing controversial speech to occur on campus does not denote university endorsement of every comment uttered in a classroom or at the student union.

University officials were following the law of the land when they acknowledged that they had no legal premise on which to deny the student’s right to select that play for the class assignment. The Texas A&M University System’s legal counsel affirmed that it was an undeniable First Amendment issue.

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Artistic expression (another form of protected speech), regardless of its form and message, is something students should learn to appreciate and accept on a college campus whether they agree or not. It is a lesson that every threatening caller and e-mail writer apparently never learned.

We here at FIRE couldn’t agree more. It’s incredibly disappointing when our fellow Americans threaten violence and shout down those with whom they disagree rather than choose to engage in rational debate and accept the wonderful fact that in this country, unlike so many others, each citizen is free to speak his or her mind.