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Florida College Bans ‘The Passion of the Christ’; Launches Campaign Against Free Speech
FORT PIERCE, Fla., January 14, 2005—Florida’s Indian River Community College (IRCC) is engaging in a campaign of repression against a Christian student group for attempting to show Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ on campus. In November 2004, the college banned the Christian Student Fellowship (CSF) from showing the film because it was R-rated, despite the fact that the college has hosted a live performance entitled “F**king for Jesus” that describes simulated sex with “the risen Christ.” CSF students report that after their group wrote President Edwin R. Massey in protest, administrators pulled group leaders out of class and, astoundingly, demanded an apology from them for their actions. Now, CSF is unable even to officially meet because its advisor resigned after IRCC imposed a burdensome new policy requiring that faculty advisors attend all student group meetings.
“IRCC’s assault on CSF must end immediately,” declared David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which wrote to IRCC on behalf of CSF. “Not only has the college adopted a breathtaking double standard for expression, but it has also abused administrative power in the worst way. As a public institution bound by the First Amendment, IRCC has no right to ban either the movie or the play, and it is shameful to demand an apology from students for trying to preserve their constitutional rights. IRCC’s arbitrary and authoritarian actions demonstrate that the college has no respect for its students or for the U.S. Constitution.”
CSF’s trouble began on November 15, 2004, when IRCC administrators first rejected fliers advertising the club’s screening of The Passion of the Christ and then cancelled the event altogether. CSF reported that one administrator, Lori LaCivita, stated that the reason for these actions was that the film was R-rated. Students also told FIRE that in early December, after CSF wrote Dean of Student Affairs Johnny Moore and President Massey in an effort to restore its rights, CSF President Preslin Isaac and Vice President Sydney Franklin were pulled out of class by LaCivita and other administrators, who demanded that the students write letters of apology to Dean Moore and President Massey for having addressed the college’s “higher authority” without their permission.
When appealing to the IRCC administration proved fruitless, CSF contacted FIRE for assistance. On December 16, FIRE wrote IRCC to explain that its actions against CSF were unconstitutional and violated its own policies, which emphasize that at IRCC “students are treated as mature adults.” FIRE also protested IRCC’s remarkably intrusive and reprehensible requirement that government representatives, in the form of faculty advisors, be present at all student organization meetings.
In a December 22 response, IRCC’s attorney claimed that the college maintained a blanket ban on R-rated movies, arguing that because the college contains some dual-enrollment high school students, it would be “inappropriate” to risk having these students “wander into R-rated movies that they would not normally be able to see.” The attorney further demonstrated IRCC’s mistrust of liberty by stating that if the college allowed constitutionally protected free speech on its campus, “[o]ne could only imagine the bizarre clubs and activities that would be formed.” Yet at the college’s Wynne Black Box Theatre, a project called No Shame Theatre has hosted skits that would earn an R-rating in any movie house. One such skit, entitled “F**king for Jesus,” involved a character simulating sex with and masturbating to an image of Jesus (the script is available here).
FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff remarked, “If IRCC has consistently prevented adult students from showing R-rated movies on campus, it has imposed on them an unconstitutional, paternalistic, and patronizing rule. IRCC’s recent actions make it more likely that IRCC has singled out The Passion of the Christ for censorship in an astonishing instance of unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination and abuse of administrative power. Either way, the college has shown extraordinary arrogance and foolishness.”
In January, college spokesperson Mary Locke contacted FIRE. Locke defended the policy against R-rated movies and told FIRE that allowing the No Shame Theatre skit was a breakdown of procedure and would not happen again, even though FIRE made it clear that both the film and the play should be permitted on a public college campus. Indeed, IRCC seems to have taken action to silence No Shame Theatre; the name of the play has been changed on the IRCC chapter’s webpage and the link to the script has been removed, although the script remains accessible elsewhere on the project’s website.
IRCC has also taken its policy of intrusive monitoring of student organization activities to absurd heights. In early December, one CSF student reported that an administrator and security guard interrupted a private discussion between her and a fellow student and demanded to know what they were doing. IRCC’s enforcement of the unlawful new rule prohibiting club meetings without the presence of a faculty advisor makes it impossible for CSF, a group that would normally meet at least three times a week, to function as a recognized student organization, as it is unable to find a new advisor who can attend every group meeting.
“It is absurd that IRCC believes that a government representative must monitor the meetings and control the expressive activity of every student group. This requirement is as insulting as it is Orwellian,” stated FIRE’s French.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Edwin R. Massey, President, Indian RiverCommunity College: 772-462-4701;
Johnny Moore, Vice President of Student Affairs, Indian RiverCommunity College: 772-462-7788; email@example.com
Lori LaCivita, Coordinator of Student Leadership Development, Indian RiverCommunity College: 772-462-7476; firstname.lastname@example.org
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