In Wake of Tarleton State Controversy, Gallaudet Refuses to Cancel Production of ‘Corpus Christi’

By April 6, 2010

Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed notes today that Gallaudet University, the congressionally chartered college for deaf students in Washington, D.C., is resisting opposition from a religious organization to a planned production of Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi, after the organization helped rouse successful opposition to a performance of excerpts from the play at Tarleton State University in Texas. Corpus Christi was cancelled in Texas, but will go on at Gallaudet. The play is controversial because it "modernizes" the story of Jesus and his apostles and portrays the Christ-like protagonist as a gay man. 

Of the Gallaudet controversy, Jaschik writes:

The student division of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, which mobilized opposition to the Tarleton State production, has been urging supporters to demand that Gallaudet call off its version of the play. The group is distributing phone numbers and e-mail addresses of Gallaudet officials, noting that Gallaudet is supported by federal tax dollars. An organizer of the group is quoted on its Web site as saying: "Just as everyone is entitled to their own good reputation, Gallaudet University has no right to harm and slander the spotless reputation of the God-Man with blasphemy, then run to academic freedom for cover."

An outside group has the right to advocate against what it sees as blasphemy, of course, but a public college has no corresponding right to ban "blasphemous" expression. (For useful illustration of the problems presented by such a ban, we refer you to the example of San Francisco State University.)

Unfortunately, at Tarleton State University, the sentiment that a public college should somehow protect the reputation of religious figures became strong enough that, in spite of Tarleton State’s recognition of the fact that the First Amendment forbade the play’s cancellation by the university, the professor whose student was directing the play felt compelled to cancel the performance of Corpus Christi—as well as the three other student-directed performances that were to be staged—for safety reasons. Of this distressing turn of events, Will wrote:

That the performance was canceled 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.

Admirably, Gallaudet has so far refused to bow to outside pressure to cancel the play, and further has refused to promulgate an official opinion of the play at all. As quoted by Jaschik, Provost Stephen Weiner stated:

Gallaudet University neither endorses nor condemns the views expressed in Corpus Christi, or any dramatic production. We understand that there are people who will find this play affirming, liberating, and cathartic, and others who find its message disrespectful, distasteful, and repugnant. We seek to allow all views to be aired openly and respectfully, and we hope that open discussions will allow individuals to listen to one another. This is the hallmark of an academic institution.

We could hardly agree more with Gallaudet, and we applaud its strong stand in support of free speech. The curtain rises on Gallaudet’s production of Corpus Christi this Thursday, and hopefully it will have nothing more to fear than the curse of the Scottish play that dare not speak its name.