This Month in FIRE History: FIRE Beats Performance Art Censorship at Washington State

By December 13, 2011

Six years ago this month, FIRE secured a victory by helping to restore freedom of artistic expression at Washington State University (WSU). As a result of pressure from FIRE and a public awareness campaign, WSU was forced to back down from its endorsement of a "heckler’s veto" and student playwright Chris Lee was able to produce a controversial play free from interruption. 

The case began in April 2005, when Lee hosted the final performance of his play Passion of the Musical, a loose parody of the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ, which was billed as potentially "offensive or inflammatory to all audiences." As Chris later explained in his presentation at FIRE’s 2010 CFN conference, he wrote the play with the intent to offend, so that audience members "would have to speak about things that are important to them." 

Despite clear warnings about the play’s satirical content, the performance was interrupted by a group of 40 student protesters who repeatedly stood up, shouted about being offended, and verbally threatened audience members and the cast. Rather than quelling the turmoil or removing the protesters, WSU’s campus security instead asked Lee (who is African-American) to censor part of his production by changing the word "black" to "blank" in the satirical song "I Will Do Anything for God, But I Won’t Act Black," in order "to avoid a possible riot or physical harm." While these actions were bad enough, FIRE later learned that the university itself had encouraged and organized the protests, going so far as to purchase the heckling students’ tickets and coordinate their disruptive actions. 

When Lee complained to the school’s Center for Human Rights (CHR) about the disruption, the university justified the actions of the hecklers by claiming that Lee’s play had provoked audience members. President V. Lane Rawlins further responded by saying that the protesters had "exercised their rights of free speech in a very responsible manner by letting the writer and players know exactly how they felt"-thereby showing a remarkable misunderstanding of the principles of the First Amendment. 

Despite two letters from FIRE and a plea from Lee to respect and protect free expression on campus, the school stood by its false defense for months. However, after FIRE helped generate significant public pressure and media exposure, the school backed down in December 2005. Lee was able to open a new play on campus, and the university publicly stated that no disruptions would be tolerated. The case helped to highlight the need for protection of artistic expression and served as a reminder that the principles of free speech never justify the censorship of "offensive" speech by a heckler’s veto.