It’s time for FIRE to shout in a crowded theater

July 18, 2005

Jesus turns into a zombie. Lucifer sings “Hell is So Sweet.” Pontius Pilate hurls racial epithets that would make Archie Bunker blush.

OK, so “Passion of the Musical” will never be mistaken for “Beauty and the Beast.”

Does that give people the right to protest the play at Washington State University? You bet it does.

But wait. Does it give them the right to protest the play by disrupting one of its performances? Definitely not.

Washington State University President V. Lane Rawlins expressed support for the protesters after 40 of them descended on the play’s final performance April 21.

Protesters shouted things like “I am offended” and (allegedly) made death threats.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) asked Rawlins last week to renounce his support.

Without renouncing the protesters per se, Rawlins should at least renounce their methods and reaffirm student playwright Chris Lee’s right to be offensive.

Lee’s parody of the film “The Passion of the Christ” is undoubtedly offensive to many people. It relies heavily on satire as practiced by such television shows as “South Park” and “Chapelle’s Show.”

“My purpose was to create something so offensive it couldn’t be offensive,” Lee said.

Sorry. No such thing.

There’s a fine line between satire and sophomoric crudity. Walking that line requires an extremely delicate touch. Lee’s highly vocal critics don’t think he’s mastered it.

Perhaps not. That’s still no reason for them to disrupt a performance. They have free speech rights, but so does Lee.

“Performing a play is constitutionally protected free speech,” FIRE leaders said in their letter to Rawlins. “Disrupting a play is not.”

Leaders of Washington State’s Center for Human Rights disagree. They told Lee in a letter May 13 that he directly provoked and taunted the audience, giving the play the “qualities of a public forum.”

“You are not free to shield yourself behind the label of playwright or actor and assume no responsibility for the consequences of your words and deeds,” they said.

Actually — to a large extent — he is. It’s called the First Amendment.

It’s one thing to find a play objectionable and urge people not to see it. It’s quite another to interrupt a play to keep people from seeing it.

If Rawlins wants to weigh in on the issue, he ought to weigh in on the side of free speech for everyone — not just those who shout the loudest. — T.H.

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