Letter from two free-speech groups implore Villanova to reconsider workshop

By February 28, 2012

Two free-speech groups have called on Villanova University to reconsider its decision to cancel a workshop by a controversial gay performance artist.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to Villanova’s president, the Rev. Peter H. Donohue, saying they were concerned about the "threat posed to academic freedom" by the abrupt cancellation of Tim Miller’s workshop, which was scheduled for mid-April.

Donohue said he called off the residency because of the "explicit, graphic, and sexual content" of Miller’s work and not because of his sexual orientation.

Miller’s shows often contain nudity and graphic content as he explores the political and cultural aspects of homosexuality. When he teaches college workshops, students create their own performance pieces based on their life experiences.

The letter from the anticensorship groups said there was no reason to believe there would be sexually graphic material in the workshop, which Miller has run at colleges nationwide, from Harvard to DePaul, another Catholic university.

A Villanova spokesman said the university had just received the letter and, if appropriate, would respond to the organizations that sent it.

Meanwhile, students organized a meeting for Tuesday night at Driscoll Hall for students, faculty, staff, and administrators to discuss the university’s actions.

According to a Facebook announcement, there will be student presentations, an opportunity for the administration to explain its actions, a Q&A panel, and small-group discussions. Donohue was expected to attend.

"This is an opportunity for everyone to contribute in a constructive dialogue about an issue our campus is facing," the announcement said. "This is not a place for name calling or diatribes. Let’s come together as a community and have a mature discussion." The meeting is closed to the public.

Although Bryn Mawr College has offered to host Miller from April 16 to 20, Svetlana Mintcheva, NCAC’s director of programs, said the free-speech groups would still like Villanova to reinstate the program.

"It’s such a clear issue of academic freedom," she said, noting that the university had "received a lot of criticism."

The workshop had been booked months ago by Heidi Rose, an assistant professor of communications, but was recently criticized on a Catholic blog.

"They said, ‘OK, we’re going to remove it, and it’s going to be fine,’ " Mintcheva said of college administrators. "Then they remove it and get pressure from the other side, and bad publicity. Censoring something is not a way to get rid of a problem. They’re finding this out."

The timing of the cancellation, in the midst of the firestorm, the letter read, gives the impression that the administration acted "for reasons of political expediency."

Schools: Villanova University