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Passion of the Heckler

As you can see on the FIRE homepage, we have just gone public with an incredible case at Washington State University. Not only did Washington State allow hecklers to disrupt student Chris Lee’s satirical musical Passion of the Musical because they were “offended” by it, but administrator Brenda Maldonado even bought tickets for them! (We have the documents to prove it.) And to top it all off, Washington State’s president, V. Lane Rawlins, thinks that exercising the heckler’s veto constitutes using the “rights of free speech in a very responsible manner.”

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. As David pointed out in our press release, “Students have a right to leave a play, protest outside of the theater, and condemn a play in the newspaper. But they do not have the right to obstruct and censor other students’ protected expression.”

As Chris freely stated in prior publicity, his play could be considered quite offensive. It was a deliberate play on The Passion of the Christ (which, as you may remember, was banned at another college until FIRE intervened) and it insulted basically every group you could imagine. But there was a purpose, he said. As Inside Higher Ed put it in a story today:

Despite the uproar, Lee said that the offensive jokes in the play were meant to depict the ridiculousness of bigotry, not enforce the stereotypes they are built on, much, he said, like South Park does by making fun of all races and religions.

Perhaps Washington State will next seek to protect its students from South Park! But perhaps not, given the double standards in the university’s recent conduct. As our press release said:

Interestingly, the same office that bankrolled the hecklers at Passion of the Musical sponsored Washington State’s 2005 production of The Vagina Monologues. Washington State also played host in April to Tales of the Lost Formicans, in which a cast member simulated masturbating into the American flag. Washington State called that play “a whimsical look at the idiosyncrasies of human interaction” and promoted it via a university press release.

Washington State’s differential treatment of student plays is an excellent foil to FIRE’s consistency on matters of liberty: we are defending Chris Lee’s rights, just as we defended those of students who wanted to show the movie that his play mocked. Censorship is always wrong, whether it comes from administrators or student hecklers, and no matter what viewpoint is being censored. Let’s hope that WSU will learn that lesson. After all, Seminole Community College did.

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