Why does Washington State University Pay Campus Hecklers?

July 21, 2005

Washington State University’s web site calls the school “an ideal place to live and learn” and promises prospective students that instead of “smog or traffic jams,” they will find “an easy-going pace and eclectic college-town atmosphere.”

Here’s something else WSU students don’t find much of on the Pullman campus – freedom of speech. Hecklers who shout down speakers at WSU sometimes do so on tax dollars. Hitler used Nazi thugs called “Brown Shirts” to silence opponents as he sought power in pre-war Germany. Today at WSU, the people paying the hecklers are called “administrators.”

Here are the basic facts of this incredible event: Black student playwright Chris Lee staged his intentionally provocative production of “Passion of the Musical” at WSU April 21. He warned potential ticket buyers beforehand the play was likely to offend everybody because, as he later said, “the whole point of the play was to show people that we’re not that different, that we all have issues that can be made fun of.”

Sure enough, a group of Mormon students peacefully protested the production outside the theatre, but inside the First Amendment took a beating as 40 mostly Black protestors repeatedly shouted “I am offended” and threatened audience members and the cast. Guess who paid for the protestors’ tickets? WSU’s Office of Campus Involvement (OCI).

At one point, Lee took a microphone and asked campus security to remove the protestors. The officials declined to do so and suggested instead that Lee change the lyrics to one of the play’s songs that especially drew the ire of the hecklers.

WSU President V. Lane Rollins later defended the hecklers, telling the campus student newspaper they “exercised their right of free speech in a very responsible manner by letting the writer and players know exactly how they felt.”

Then Raul Sanchez, OCI’s Director, investigated the incident but concluded no action was needed to discipline the hecklers because “the mere fact that such an outrageous play was produced, though lawful, was a provocation.”

Sanchez also suggested Lee was himself responsible for the hecklers’ conduct because he “spared few social groups from the play’s abundance of slurs, swear words, epithets and derogatory language,” then tried to evade “all responsibility for intended and unintended impacts on the audience and the WSU community.”

As a result, not only do WSU students now know campus administrators will not protect their freedom of speech, those same officials are encouraging more such violations. As David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is aiding Lee, observed: “Washington State’s defense of this vigilante censorship will encourage students to unlawfully silence others whenever they feel offended.”

As disturbing as is the fact WSU bought tickets for the hecklers knowing in advance that they were likely to disrupt the controversial play, and as difficult to believe as it is that WSU’s president and another high-profile administrator absolved the hecklers of blame, what is truly dangerous about this incident is the role of campus security and WSU’s favored method of avoiding future such controversies.

It’s bad enough campus security refused to enforce the First Amendment. They also took the next very large step of invoking police power in an attempt to censor the play, even as it was being presented! The next even larger step after that, of course, is using the police power to enforce pre-production censorship, AKA “prior restraint.” Oh, but that could never happen here in America, you say?

Tell Sanchez, who has already put the student playwright on notice. Sanchez doesn’t dare call it censorship. In fact, he almost appeared obsequious about it, telling Lee three months ago: “If you decide to stage a similar performance in the future, this office strongly encourages you to think long and hard about the possible reactions of your audience and the entire community …No one should seek to censor you but it is not unreasonable to expect you to act more responsibly in anticipating public reactions to your theatrical productions. This office stands ready to help you do that.”

And just to make sure there was no doubt in Lee’s mind about his orders, Sanchez added this instructive suggestion: “If you put on any more plays, please seek us out well ahead of time, so we may help you develop a constructive framework for anticipating and responding to public reactions to your work.”

Those, my friends, are the words of a nascent American Stalinism.

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