WSU finally gets it: Heckling isn’t free speech

December 16, 2005

Hey, no heckling zombie Jesus!

And if you disagree with Lucifer that “Hell is So Sweet,” keep it to yourself. At least until he’s done singing.

Otherwise, you might be asked to leave the theater.

A zombie Jesus and singing Lucifer are only two of the things that offended audiences earlier this year during “The Passion of the Musical” at Washington State University.

Threatening to eject hecklers represents a new attitude among WSU administrators. At first, they claimed heckling was a First Amendment right.

When student playwright Chris Lee presented his satirical production last April, the crowd went wild. Literally.

Offended audience members even threatened violence. The hostility was so intense that it stopped the performance.

Lee’s play was never confused with “Mary Poppins.” Jesus turns into a zombie. Lucifer sings the praises of hell, and Pontius Pilate hurls enough racial epithets to turn Strom Thurmond over in his grave.

Officials at WSU’s Center for Human Rights blasted Lee. They told him he directly provoked and taunted the audience. It was no longer a play, they said. It was 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,” they added.

WSU administrators admitted no wrongdoing on the part of the university, instead calling the heckling an exercise in free speech.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia took up Lee’s cause.

Lee, angered by administrators’ attitude, produced another play. “The Magina Monologues”—based on Lee’s experiences at WSU and in his hometown—opened Nov. 17.

This time, administrators posted and read a notice before each performance: “Please be aware that disruption to this performance, or any program, will not be tolerated and will be dealt with accordingly—up to and including participants being escorted from the venue.”

No disruptions were reported.

Hooray. At last. It took university administrators time to see the light, but at least they saw it.

Shouting someone else down isn’t free speech. On the contrary, it’s a thuggish attempt to take away the other guy’s freedom. No matter what Lee has to say or how he chooses to say it, hecklers deserve the boot.

WSU finally took a stand against mob censorship. And with any luck, students received a deeper understanding of freedom of speech.

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