PULLMAN, Wash., December 12, 2005—Thanks to a campaign led by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Washington State University (WSU) has rejected the “heckler’s veto” and warned students not to disrupt a controversial play. WSU financed and organized the disruption of a different play by the same student playwright earlier this year.
“WSU has apparently been embarrassed into respecting free artistic expression,” stated FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “It is long past time that WSU recognized that shouting down a play, like wantonly tearing down controversial artwork, is the very opposite of free speech.”
WSU’s foray into mob censorship began in April, when a group of about 40 students disrupted a performance of student playwright Chris Lee’s bitingly satirical Passion of the Musical, which Lee warned was potentially “offensive or inflammatory to all audiences.” The heckling, which included threats of physical violence directed at cast members, was so severe that it actually stopped the performance. Nevertheless, campus security refused to remove those disrupting the play. Lee contacted FIRE for help, and FIRE soon discovered that a university office had purchased the hecklers’ tickets with university funds and helped organize the disruptive “protest.”
FIRE twice wrote WSU President V. Lane Rawlins in protest (see here and here), and Chris Lee appealed to WSU’s Center for Human Rights and Vice President Michael Tate, asking them to take steps to protect artistic expression. Yet administrators admitted no wrongdoing on the part of the university, instead calling disruptive heckling an exercise of free speech rights. In response, FIRE took WSU’s disrespect for artistic expression public, resulting in widespread condemnation of WSU’s actions.
Lee, angered but undeterred by WSU’s shameful disregard for his rights, produced another controversial play this fall. This time, university officials posted and read a notice before each performance stating, in part, “Please be aware 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.” No disruptions of this play were reported.
“This 180-degree turn from last spring shows that public attention to university abuses can and does change unjust policies,” commented FIRE’s Lukianoff. “Instead of allowing mob censorship, WSU has pledged to protect Chris Lee’s artistic expression. This is a real win for those who care about safeguarding the marketplace of ideas on campus.”
While WSU has now abandoned its toleration of the “heckler’s veto,” uncertainty remains at its College of Education over whether student Ed Swan’s conservative political beliefs will disqualify him from becoming a teacher. While WSU has pledged not to use its so-called dispositions criteria unconstitutionally, Dean Judy Mitchell called this pledge into question by telling the press in October that she did not know whether Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could make it through WSU’s program because of his political beliefs. FIRE is continuing its campaign to ensure that unconstitutional political and ideological requirements do not exclude Swan and other students from receiving degrees at state universities.
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 at Washington State University can be viewed at thefire.org/wsu.