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‘I Believe in Free Speech and All, but I Draw the Line at Comedy Musicals!’
This article appeared in The Huffington Post.
Back in 2005, Chris Lee, a student at Washington State University, set out make a comedy musical that, in the tradition of South Park, offended as broad a spectrum of people as possible. Unfortunately for him, he succeeded. His musical--a very loose parody of Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ--earned him protests, death threats, and even an organized attempt among administrators and students to disrupt the play.
Today, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, unveils a new video about Chris' strange journey.
You can see all the documentation about this case yourself here, including the e-mail in which the Washington State University administrator admits that they counseled students to stand up and yell during the play. While the university did not advise the students to shout threats of physical violence and even death threats during the play, that's what the protesters did. Meanwhile, the campus police told Chris they would not protect the actors if the angry protesters decided to rush the stage. Amazingly, the president of WSU actually praised the university-funded, threat-shouting, play-disrupting students, saying they "exercised their rights of free speech in a very responsible manner."
What makes the student and university efforts against the play particularly bizarre is that Chris Lee went to great lengths to tell people not to attend the play if they were easily offended, posting warnings on ads and on the tickets, as well as a long disclaimer before the actual show. It's also funny that the students were instructed to stand up and shout "I'm offended," when that was the very point of the production! As Chris put it, the goal of the play was "to show people we're not that different, we all have issues that can be made fun of," and thus poke fun at identity politics. The play earned Chris the nickname "black Hitler" on campus, apparently from students who have a hard time distinguishing between comedy musicals and the Holocaust.
I chose Chris' story to open up my chapter in the new book, New Threats to Freedom, which hits bookshelves tomorrow, because it's one of the best examples in my experience of campus administrations and students working together to try to silence speech they don't like. My chapter, called "Students Against Liberty?", explores the long-term consequences of campus censorship, speech codes, and the failure to educate students about the importance of free speech.
For Chris, there was a somewhat happy ending. After months of battering in the press and by FIRE, university officials warned students not to disrupt Chris's subsequent satirical effort: The Mangina Monologues. This was a welcome about-face and demonstrates the simple and obvious lesson: If you don't like a play, don't go to it.
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