Everyone’s a Critic

July 18, 2005

The curtain did not fall silently on the Devil. But rather to a chorus of “I am offended.”

In fact, the shouts by a group of Washington State University students pervaded the final performance in April of The Passion of the Musical — a show that has become the subject of a free speech dispute months after its short run.

The protesters, angry at the satire depicting the last of two days of the life of Jesus, forced the show to stop several times. At the behest of campus security guards concerned about a potential riot, Chris Lee, a theater major who wrote, directed, and portrayed the cross-dressing Lucifer in the play, self-censored one of the show’s songs. Instead of singing “I would do anything for God, but I won’t act black,” a parody of Meat Loaf’s “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that,” the “black” was changed to “blank.”

Along with jokes about gay people, AIDS, Hitler, and the use of “nigger,” another chorus that roiled audience members was the “And I will always hate Jews” refrain in the parody of Whitney Houston’s hit “I Will Always Love You.” And of course there was the scene where newborn babies were shot onto the stage, apparently from a Mormon mother’s offstage womb, and Jesus, like a good outfielder, caught all 16 of them.

Lee, like many of those who organized the protests and disrupted the play, is black. “The whole point was to show people we’re not that different, we all have issues that can be made fun of,” Lee said.

Several months after the play, a free speech group is coming to Lee’s defense and demanding to know why college administrators appeared to support those who disrupted the production.

The group cites an e-mail obtained by The Daily Evergreen, the Washington State paper, in which President Lane Rawlins wrote to a professor: “I too was concerned about the threat to safety but I must say that our students, even though they were upset, exercised their rights of free speech in a very responsible manner by letting the writer and players know exactly how they felt.” Not everyone thought it was free speech that the 40 students exercised.

“The protesters were the people standing outside with signs,” Lee said. “Inside, they were hecklers. I wanted the play to cause discussion, but they didn’t even listen to it.”

Officials at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education strongly disagreed with Rawlins that the protesters were exercising free speech, rather than violating it. “Disrupting a play with mob censorship is not protected expression,” said Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE.

In a letter to Rawlins, Lukianoff cited a 1970 federal case in which a war protester won the right to hand out fliers. Previously, the University of Arizona had prevented him from doing so on the grounds that his actions caused people to threaten him and created potential for violence. “The court affirmed that a person has a right to be free from a ‘heckler’s veto,’ ” read the letter. Similarly, Lukianoff argued, campus security should have protected Lee’s right to continue his play unchanged, rather than pushed him to self-censor to avoid an explosive situation.

Washington State staff members and administrators who supported the protesters right to interrupt the play, including the president, contend that Lee created a public forum by engaging the crowd early in the play. At the beginning he read aloud a critical flier that the protesters had been passing out. Twenty minutes into the play, after some vocal interruptions, Lee paused the play and told the crowd he would call the cops if they continued to interrupt.

“We believe that Chris taunted and provoked the crowd from the very beginning of the play,” said Raul Sanchez, director of the Center for Human Rights at Washington State, which investigates harassment and discrimination claims. “By his character, Lucifer, reading the protesters’ flier, he incorporated something that belonged to them, and made specific asides about them. We believe he converted what was a private forum into a public forum.” He likened it to a group assembling to shout down someone on a street corner spewing racial epithets.

Lee’s supporters said the protesters had every right to leave the performance, as Rawlins did, but they reject the idea that shouting out during the play was protected speech.

“Legally that’s laughable,” Lukianoff said of the idea that Lee begged public discourse. “Just because you address someone in the audience, it doesn’t make the Winter Garden a public forum,” he said, referring to the renowned Manhattan theater. Lukianoff also thinks the audience missed the point. “It’s satire, public commentary. It’s like South Park. It offends everybody, so that it can’t be offensive. No matter how much you disagree with someone, it’s dangerous not to hear them.”

Lukianoff and Lee also believe that the protesters were not simply reacting to what they saw, but had planned to protest before they ever saw the show. Many of the protesters employed identical, seemingly coordinated, actions: stand, put forward a hand, and say, “I am offended.” Some used their cell phones at specific instances, and others criticized audience members who laughed at caustic jokes. Lukianoff contends that these were premeditated acts, and, what’s more, that Washington State facilitated the disruptions by not removing protesters from the audience, and by giving them free tickets beforehand.

The Office of Campus Involvement bought 40 tickets for students, only one of whom had seen the play, who were concerned about the play’s content. Sanchez said the idea was to allow these students to see the play for themselves so they could engage in a discussion with Lee after it. The tickets were distributed by Brenda Maldonado, intercultural student development coordinator. Sanchez said that, as far as he knows, no employees helped organize the protest, but Maldonado criticized the play in local papers. “I don’t want students to have to pay to support a program that is obviously racist and homophobic,” Maldonado told The Evergreen.

Lee said that some protesters physically threatened him and his cast. In reviewing a tape of the performance, however, Sanchez said that was not apparent. Some cast members said there was cause for concern. Kenneth Ellis, one of them, recalled protesters yelling “you’re going to hell” during one number. “The worst came when the only black girl in our cast was out on stage during the song ‘I will always hate Jews,’ the protesters yelled out that they would see her tomorrow on the mall, and the way they said it made you think they weren’t going to be talking to her,” Ellis said.

Despite the uproar, Lee said that the offensive jokes in the play were meant to depict the ridiculousness of bigotry, not enforce the stereotypes they are built on, much, he said, like South Park does by making fun of all races and religions.

Rawlins was off campus on Friday and unavailable for comment. So far, his written responses to FIRE have thanked the group for its interest, and assured it that the university was concerned as well. As for Lee, he was only silenced temporarily. He will be raising the curtain on Mangina Monologues in the fall.

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Schools: Washington State University Cases: Washington State University: Administrative Support for Heckler’s Veto of Student Play