Rawlins wrong on free speech

July 18, 2005

V. Lane Rawlins has abetted censorship. Inadvertently, perhaps, but that’s what it was.

In an attempt to placate protesters, the Washington State University president reiterated his support for faculty and students who shouted their objections this spring during the final performance of student Chris Lee’s “intentionally offensive” play, “Passion of the Musical.” In a followup letter to Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Rawlins said the demonstrators had “exercised their rights of free speech in a very responsible manner.”

Except that the “speech” they were exercising was nothing but a high-decibel barrage to drown out the message coming from the stage. It was the 40 objectors who trashed Lee’s right to free speech and stopped the April 21 performance with their rude shouts of “I’m offended.” By being intolerant of others’ ideas, the small mob also prevented the audience from viewing the play undisturbed.

By endorsing such conduct in letters to FIRE, a watchdog organization involved in conservative campus issues, Rawlins signaled students that it’s OK to use a false claim of free speech to stifle the real thing.

In a college setting, students should be encouraged to explore and to push boundaries, to test ideas and to challenge norms. By caving in to the protesters, Rawlins followed the footsteps of Stephen Jordan, who as Eastern Washington University president this spring tried, on thin pretext, to block controversial Colorado professor Ward Churchill from speaking on campus before relenting. EWU survived Churchill. WSU will outlast playwright Lee. Rather than encourage what FIRE calls “the heckler’s veto,” Rawlins should promote a variety of ideas – and order security guards to evict misbehaving playgoers at all times.

Unquestionably, Lee’s play, a musical parody of the final days of Jesus Christ, was offensive to racial minorities and religionists. It was meant to be edgy in the mold of television’s cartoon, “South Park,” according to comments by Lee in this newspaper. It contained racial epithets, ethnic stereotypes and irreverent jokes about religion. Maybe Lee went overboard to make his point. But others before him have been accused of doing the same thing.

Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” has offended many with its racy language and focus on female genitalia while decrying mistreatment of women. “The Laramie Project,” a play based on the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, stirs controversy. But few audience members would leave their cell phones on during performances of those shows, let alone shout, “I’m offended.” It’s a matter of respect for artistic expression and free speech.

A better model for protest was exhibited this spring by EWU students who disagreed with an anti-affirmative action bake sale by college Republicans. When the Republicans set up their table to demonstrate against affirmative action by selling cookies at different prices, counter-demonstrators quietly protested 20 feet away with signs and by giving away $100 worth of cookies. There were no confrontations. Both sides made their political statements and left.

Rawlins missed a chance to teach student censors a valuable civics lesson when he sided with them against the First Amendment.

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