Letter from Chris Lee to Washington State University Vice President for Equity and Diversity Michael Tate, September 8, 2005

By on September 8, 2005

September 8, 2005

Michael J. Tate
Vice President for Equity and Diversity
Washington State University
PO Box 641048
French Administration Building
Pullman, WA  99164-1013

Dear Vice President Tate,

This summer, after the disruptive heckling of my play the Passion of the Musical became publicly known, you asked me to write down what I hope comes out of this whole situation.  Here is my attempt to make that clear.

My main goal is to make sure that no WSU student’s free speech rights are ever threatened as mine and my cast’s were.  Therefore, I would like the WSU administration to make a public statement saying three things.

First, I ask that WSU admit that it was improper for the Office of Campus Involvement to encourage students to disrupt my play and that it was improper for WSU not to stop the disruptions.  The enclosed email from OCI Director Rich Kelley (acquired via a public records request) shows that this did indeed happen.  According to Kelley, OCI staff told students that it would be “appropriate” for them to “stand and say ‘I’m offended’ if they indeed felt offended.”  As Lt. Scott West testified to the Center for Human Rights (transcript enclosed, again from a public records request), hecklers later did just that “in booming voices” and “it was disorderly conduct.”

This kind of conduct is never appropriate during a play.  CHR’s rationale that I made the play a “public forum” by asking people not to heckle is flatly wrong, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and many others have pointed out.  Furthermore, even if that rationale were valid, Kelley’s email shows that the hecklers had decided to disrupt my play long before they got there, “public forum” or not, so what I said at the beginning of the play is irrelevant.  It was clearly not my remarks that spurred them to heckle.

Second, I would like WSU to pledge that none of my other plays will be allowed to be disrupted.  As you know, I plan to continue writing and performing plays.  WSU should honor my First Amendment rights and never allow (much less encourage) hecklers to shout them down.  This does not mean, of course, that WSU should not allow students to protest.  It should simply require them to protest lawfully, as the Mormon protesters at the Passion of the Musical did and the people who interrupted the performance did not.  I am fine with people protesting my work.  But they have no right to try to shout it down.

Finally, I ask that WSU promise to extend these same guarantees of free speech to all students, regardless of viewpoint.  As FIRE put it in a July 1 letter to President Rawlins, “We again request your administration’s written assurance to your students and to FIRE that any theatrical production or other protected student expression will be allowed to proceed unhindered by faculty, administrative staff, or other students; that no ‘heckler’s veto’ will be permitted to obstruct such expression; and that no university policy or contrivance will be used to infringe upon the expression of protected speech by any student at Washington State.”

Thank you for being willing to listen to my thoughts on this matter.  I look forward to your reply and hope that we can resolve this problem in a manner beneficial to everyone at WSU.

Sincerely,

Christopher Lee
[e-mail address redacted]

cc:
V. Lane Rawlins, President
Richard C. Kelley, Director, Office of Campus Involvement

Encl.

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