Race, free speech issues likely to linger

August 27, 2005

The fall semester promises to include more discussion of race and the First Amendment on the Washington State University campus as many of the main players from last school year are back in town after summer break.

Last spring, a black theater major at WSU produced a deliberately provocative play at the student union that caused a stir among several groups on campus.

Christopher Lee, now a senior, wrote and produced “The Passion of the Musical.” The play was protested and disrupted on its last night by a number of minority students, many of whom gained admittance to the production using tickets purchased by the university’s Office of Campus Involvement.

All sides agree the play was meant to offend on grounds of race, sex, religion and more. But Lee filed a complaint with the university’s Human Rights Center after the protests that he says were facilitated by “politically correct” university officials who didn’t like the content of his creation.

“I feel like WSU is so censored. … (President V. Lane) Rawlins wants to protect the students from everything in the real world,” Lee said.

Raul Sanchez, director of the HRC, ruled Lee had not suffered any discrimination.

Sanchez acknowledged that WSU’s Office of Campus Involvement purchased 40 tickets for students to attend the play, but only some of those students protested the production. The money for the tickets went to Lee, and another division of WSU had earlier given Lee money to help with the production of the play, Sanchez said.

WSU police were at the last performance but did not expel students who called out their objections to the play, and all parties agreed profanity and racial epithets were freely used by all concerned.

The conservative advocacy group The Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE) took up Lee’s cause this summer, bringing wider attention to what Lee sees as “institutional censorship” of his free expression.

Despite the critique offered by FIRE, Sanchez denied the play was censored by WSU. He views the last night of the play as more of a “public forum” than a private performance of a play.

“It was quite interactive. … Chris started the evening by reading from a leaflet that protesting LDS (Latter-day Saints) students were handing out outside the building,” Sanchez said. “He made that part of the play … and cast members threw things to the audience which threw them back. So there is interaction. … Then Chris stopped the play to shout at the protestors who had stood up from time to time saying, ‘I’m offended,’ and sat back down. Only then did the protestors get louder. Taken together the evening was like a public forum on a street corner” where those who shout the loudest are those who are most heard.

Lee objects to the street corner analogy, but it makes sense to Rawlins, who was at the play that night.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I think the First Amendment was honored by events there,” he said. “I feel the play was able to reach its conclusion.”

Lee says he will feel free to disrupt WSU’s December commencement exercises, when he expects to graduate, in the name of public forums and free speech.

“And I’ll be putting on more plays this fall. … I do (with my plays) what free speech is all about,” he said.

Another group on campus last year wanted to go an opposite direction in relation to what type of speech is allowed at WSU. Some WSU minority students advocated “speech codes” that would limit what can be said on campus. In recent years, some public universities in the Midwest experimented with such codes, which are meant to protect minority and women students from hearing what they might consider to be attacks on them or their culture.

The idea of a “speech code” is likely to be raised again this fall, but most WSU students appear committed to a traditional interpretation of First Amendment rights. The new president and vice president of the Associated Students at WSU defended the rights of all students to express themselves.

“Free speech is free speech, and we need to honor what America was founded on,” said Mike King, ASWSU vice president.

On a day-to-day basis, most WSU undergraduates feel they are able to exercise their free speech rights, ASWSU President Isaac Wells said.

“Mike and I don’t support the idea of limiting free expression with things like speech codes,” Wells said.

The new president and vice president said they did a lot of listening to the multicultural community last spring when they ran for their offices.

“And we’ll continue that this year,” King said.

Together with student leaders from a variety of organizations on campus, the pair want to sponsor student forums on both race and free speech issues.

“We want it to be strictly among students, with no administrators involved,” King said.

That suits WSU Vice President for Equity and Diversity Mike Tate just fine.

“How students relate to each other is, at core, a student issue … we want all students to feel that they are full citizens at the university. With that citizenship, comes responsibilities, and those issues are matters the students need to discuss,” Tate said. “On our side we are reviewing administrative matters to make them more transparent to everyone involved.”

Transparency, many students feel, was lacking last winter when the student conduct office reviewed the case of alleged racial harassment of an Asian-American female at the student union.

Nina Kim, then a junior majoring in Women Studies and Comparative Ethnic Studies, was the focus of a complaint against several white basketball players. Kim alleged the men racially harassed her through the windows of the Multicultural Student Center offices in the evenings at the Compton Union Building. Kim’s allegations led to a protest by about 200 students who marched on the president’s office.

The players were cleared of violating any university rules after an investigation by WSU’s student conduct office. The administration then asked the state’s Human Rights Commission to review the university’s processes and handling of the matter. In July, the HRC issued a long report giving a list of administrative changes that WSU can consider adopting, as well as expressing sharp criticisms of the tactics and rhetoric of the students allied with Kim.

Tate says the administration is seeking student and faculty input on some points of the HRC report and already has moved to implement other changes recommended by the state.

That’s not enough for Kim, who is now chairwoman of the student Council of Multicultural Student Presidents.

“The administration needs to go back to our student demands and meet those,” she said.

The demands include new required classes on diversity issues and a speech code on campus.

Recently, the HRC report and WSU’s response to Kim’s allegations were publicly criticized by three Asian-American civic groups based in the Puget Sound area, which are in contact with Kim.

“We hope to convince (the western Washington groups) of the value of the many things we’re working on,” Tate said. “What we are doing is not at all shabby … we are accomplishing a lot compared to some — not all, but some — of our peers.”

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