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Duquesne University law professor Jacob H. Rooksby reports on the latest failure of common sense on campus over at HigherEducationLaw, and it’s a stunner: Administrators at The Evergreen State College are refusing to let a student theater troupe perform an original work on university property because they’re worried that the production, which includes parodies of Disney songs, might trigger liability for copyright infringement.

Here’s the story:

Eight students there spent the spring quarter writing, rehearsing, and preparing to perform publicly an original musical theater production entitled “The Quisney Project presents: O.U.T.: Once Upon a Time.”  Informed by queer theory, the work is a critical and political commentary on heterosexuality norms in American society.  Professors were involved in supervising and approving the project, which was scheduled to be performed this weekend in campus facilities.

Evergreen State College’s administration was supportive of the project initially.  However, after consulting with a state attorney, the administration apparently changed its tune, writing the students in late May to advise them that the musical could not be performed on college property in its present form.  Their concern?  Potential secondary liability for copyright infringement.

The students’ musical production apparently incorporates several Disney songs, which the students use to criticize and parody Disney as – in their view – a company that perpetuates gender norms through its songs and movies.

Rooksby reports that faculty have tried to convince the administrators that the serious threat here isn’t to the university via a copyright suit, but rather to free speech at Evergreen via censorship:

Faculty familiar with the project, and supportive of it, believe that the students’ use of Disney songs in the musical constitutes “fair use” under copyright law, as the musical “significantly alters the meaning of original melodies and lyrics, and offers critical commentary upon the original.”  They also characterize the administration’s efforts to move the musical off campus as “overzealous,” motivated by a narrow view of copyright law’s fair use provision, and likely to produce “far-reaching and dangerous consequences for the intellectual life of The Evergreen State College.”

In a development that will strike regular Torch readers as unsurprising, Rooksby reports that the administration isn’t budging. No location is listed for the event on the school’s calendar; instead, interested attendees have to write the event’s organizers directly to learn where they might be able to watch the performance.

My colleagues urged me to fit as many Disney-related puns into this blog entry as I could, but this story leaves me too grumpy to get myself tangled up in such a goofy endeavor. Besides, Rooksby gets it just right:

For now, questionable concerns for copyright infringement seem to have frozen, or at least chilled, at Evergreen College that which should be presumptively permitted on college campuses everywhere: probing, student-driven, thought-provoking speech, unfettered by content restrictions that do not advance compelling institutional interests.  Absent unassailable evidence that the musical’s inclusion of Disney songs is not permitted by fair use, my hope would be that Evergreen College administrators would take their cue from Disney and let this one go.

I strongly agree. Be sure to read Rooksby’s full analysis. Further information, including the faculty’s open letter and a response from the Dean’s office, is available at the Washington Lawyers for the Arts’ blog.

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