Today in FIRE History: Heckler’s Veto at Washington State | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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Today in FIRE History: Heckler’s Veto at Washington State

As the dog days of summer come rolling in, and students and faculty enjoy the last few weeks before the academic year begins anew, we figured it was a good time to crack open FIRE’s vaults and recall outrageous cases gone by. July 18 is a particularly good day to start with, as it was two years ago today that FIRE issued a press release detailing Washington State University’s (WSU’s) bizarre embrace of the heckler’s veto.

Throughout the annals of FIRE’s history, few instances of officially sponsored censorship have been quite as brazen: WSU administrators actually bought tickets for students seeking to disrupt the final performance of Passion of the Musical, a satirical student play advertised as being “offensive or inflammatory to all audiences.” During the play’s final night, a group of 40 student protestors acted as disruptively as they possibly could, seeking to derail the show’s “South Park” brand of humor by standing, shouting, and verbally threatening both the cast and fellow audience members. The heckling got so heated that student playwright Chris Lee asked campus security present at the event to remove the hecklers, but they refused, instead asking Lee to change the words to a song in order “to avoid a possible riot or physical harm.” It is difficult to imagine a better demonstration of the potential perniciousness of the heckler’s veto.

After the disastrous final night, Lee filed a complaint with WSU’s Center for Human Rights (CHR), but to no avail. CHR’s report on the incident inexplicably found that the performance had only itself to blame: having “taunted” the audience, the play had thus displayed “qualities of a public forum.” Later, Washington State President V. Lane Rawlins told the campus paper that the protestors were to be commended, having “exercised their rights of free speech in a very responsible manner by letting the writer and players know exactly how they felt.”

It took until December 2006, but with FIRE’s help, Lee was eventually able to declare a victory for freedom of expression at WSU. After two letters to President Rawlins from FIRE (available here and here) received no response, FIRE took the case public, resulting in widespread condemnation of WSU’s illiberal actions. However, during the fall semester, Lee’s next play (entitled Mangina Monologues) received a markedly different administrative response: this time, playgoers were presented with a notice upon entry to the theater 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.” It took several months and a lot of pressure from FIRE and the general public to get it right, but in the end freedom of expression carried the day at WSU.

Stay tuned as we continue to look back in FIRE’s history in the upcoming weeks. Of course, you don’t have to wait; our case archives are always open for your perusal.

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