This Month in FIRE History: Washington State University Bankrolls Vigilante Censorship

July 29, 2009

Over four years have passed since our fight with Washington State University began, but it still remains one of the most astonishing cases we have ever handled. It surrounded a controversial and purposefully offensive play that aimed, according to the playwright, Chris Lee, “to show people we’re not that different, we all have issues that can be made fun of.”  Lee was clear about these intentions and the fact that the play was not suitable for minors in the play’s promotional materials.

The play was entitled “Passion of the Musical” and parodied Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” one of the top grossing films of the previous year.  During the April 21, 2005, production, a group of 40 student protestors repeatedly stood up, shouted about being offended, and verbally threatened audience members and the cast. Campus security refused to remove the hecklers, even though the play could barely continue. Instead they asked Lee (who is African American) to censor part of his production by changing the word “black” to “blank” in the satirical song “I Will Do Anything for God, But I Won’t Act Black” in order “to avoid a possible riot or physical harm.”

If failing to silence the hecklers wasn’t bad enough, it quickly became clear that Washington State administrators played an even greater role in the disruption. In fact, it was later revealed that Washington State’s Office for Campus Involvement (OCI) had purchased the hecklers’ tickets and even instructed students on how to protest the performance.

In an incredibly warped interpretation of the First Amendment, the president of the university was quoted in the campus newspaper saying that the protestors “exercised their rights of free speech in a very responsible manner by letting the writer and players know exactly how they felt.”

As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said at the time, “The very function of satire and parody is to challenge, provoke, and, yes, offend. If Washington State is not comfortable with this, it is not comfortable with the idea of free speech.”

Though the university was reluctant to apologize, when Lee produced another controversial play the following fall, the university posted signs stating that students were not permitted to disrupt the performance. He has since graduated from Washington State and was a speaker at our most recent CFN conference in June.

Schools:  Washington State University

Cases:  Washington State University: Administrative Support for Heckler’s Veto of Student Play