Between Tarleton State and Gallaudet, Where Will Students’ Ideas Receive a Fair Shake?

April 13, 2010

As we have discussed here on The Torch, two universities have recently faced controversy over students’ attempts to stage productions of Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi on campus. Student productions of the play, which "modernizes" the story of Jesus Christ and his apostles and depicts the Christ-like protagonist as a gay man, met with far different results at these two schools. Which school is more likely to promote a true marketplace of ideas?

At Tarleton State University in Texas, a drama professor canceled a production of the play that had been planned by a student for an advanced directing class. The professor based his decision to cancel the production (as well as performances of three other plays scheduled to take place on the same day) on threats the university received from offended and outraged members of the community, though in the days following the cancellation doubt was raised about whether the threats were serious enough to have warranted cancellation. Conversely, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., refused to give in to public opposition to a student-run production of the play, even in the face of a campaign by the same religious organization, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, that had helped to rouse opposition to the play at Tarleton State. Instead, Gallaudet has admirably allowed the production to go on.

Just as striking as the differences in these results are the public statements issued by the two universities during the respective controversies. At Tarleton State, President F. Dominic Dottavio issued an open letter in which he recognized that "[t]he Supreme Court of the United States has consistently held that public universities may not engage in the sort of censorship that prohibiting this student’s project would involve," and that students’ First Amendment rights are "protected by law even if the speech is offensive to others." Of course, FIRE welcomed the fact that President Dottavio recognized that both he and his university were legally bound to uphold the First Amendment—which happens much less often at public colleges than one might think. However, President Dottavio also felt the need to give his personal views of the play at issue, and at some length at that:

As you might imagine, many people have shared with me quotes, excerpts and even video clips of the play. My personal reaction is that I see no artistic or redeeming quality in the work. I believe, as many have opined, that it is offensive, crude, and irreverent. It is my sense that there are significant numbers of faculty, staff and students at Tarleton who share my views of the play.

[ … ]

I am hopeful that people will judge us against our 111 year history of providing exceptional quality educational opportunities for students rather than against this one unfortunate event.

While President Dottavio of course has a First Amendment right to express his personal opinion about Corpus Christi, it would have been preferable for him to tread more lightly. For him to declare that he sees "no artistic or redeeming quality" in the play, as though he were invoking the legal standard for obscenity, goes somewhat beyond merely expressing disagreement with the play’s content; unfortunately, it borders on declaring the play to be outside the bounds of First Amendment protection. As the head of the institution, he should have realized that, fairly or not, his words carry considerable weight on campus and in the surrounding community and shape the views of others, some of whom may mistake his statement as speaking for the institution. Thus, his statement carries the potential of causing a chilling effect among Tarleton State students, certainly a result to be avoided.

Contrast President Dottavio’s statement with the one made by Gallaudet Provost Stephen Weiner regarding the controversy there:

Gallaudet University neither endorses nor condemns the views expressed in Corpus Christi, or any dramatic production. We understand that there are people who will find this play affirming, liberating, and cathartic, and others who find its message disrespectful, distasteful, and repugnant. We seek to allow all views to be aired openly and respectfully, and we hope that open discussions will allow individuals to listen to one another. This is the hallmark of an academic institution.

So, not only was the end result at Gallaudet worthy of praise, but the school showed admirable restraint by not taking an official position on the moral value of the views expressed in the play, recognizing that different people have differed in their reasonable conclusions about the play. There was no declaration that the play’s content had no artistic or redeeming value. Instead, Provost Weiner issued an exemplary statement regarding the value of the unfettered exchange of views on a college campus. Consequently, students at Gallaudet should feel comfortable expressing a wide range of views.

This is how the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work. If you’re a student at Tarleton State or Gaulladet, it is worth asking yourself where you might feel more comfortable expressing your views, particularly if you happen to rest in the campus minority on a particular (and, say, contentious) issue. Where might you think the administration is least likely to come down on the "wrong" type of speech? If recent developments at these two schools are any indication, the answer should be apparent.