Play sparks controversy at WSU

July 15, 2005

A student play that includes racial and religious slurs has created a free speech dispute at Washington State University.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has asked WSU President V. Lane Rawlins to renounce his support of people who disrupted a performance of “Passion of the Musical” in April.

“Performing a play is constitutionally protected free speech,” the group said in its letter. “However, disrupting a play is not.”

In a short letter sent Wednesday, Rawlins thanked FIRE for its interest and suggestions, without addressing the incident directly.

Student Chris Lee wrote and staged “Passion of the Musical,” a musical parody of the final days of Jesus Christ, on campus in April.

The play includes racial epithets, ethnic stereotypes and irreverent jokes about religion. Lee likens it to “South Park” or “Chapelle’s Show,” two popular, boundary-pushing television shows.

“My purpose was to create something so offensive it couldn’t be offensive,” Lee said.

The play included a song called “I Will Always Hate Jews,” to the tune of “I Will Always Love You,” as well as a scene with Jesus as a zombie, and one with Lucifer singing “Hell is So Sweet.”

Particularly controversial was the use of “nigger” and other racial epithets. Lee, who is black, said the play used the words to comic and satiric effect.

“Pontius Pilate was a racist, but none of it is rewarded,” he said. “We weren’t applauding his racism.”

But some students and faculty were upset. A group of about 40 attended the final performance April 21 and shouted “I am offended” during portions of the play. Lee said the shouts also included death threats, and he interrupted the play to argue with the audience.

The university’s Center for Human Rights concluded in a May 13 letter to Lee that he had directly provoked and taunted the audience, giving the play the “qualities of a public forum.”

“You are not free to shield yourself behind the label of playwright or actor, and assume no responsibility for the consequences of your words and deeds,” the letter said.

Rawlins expressed support for the protesters, the student newspaper, the Daily Evergreen, reported in late April.

Lee argued that free-speech rights don’t apply to an audience during a performance like a play. The protesters’ actions were an act of censorship, he said.

After Lee complained, FIRE got involved. The group advocates for free speech on campuses, fighting what it sees as a politically correct, anti-religious bias, and defending rights such as due process and legal equality, according to its Web site.

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