Washington State University (WSU) has spent much of 2005 making a name for itself as one of the premier schools in the country for unreasonable, unconstitutional, and frankly shameful censorship. Therefore it’s reason to celebrate that WSU has seemingly given up on protecting the “right” of audience members to shout down and physically threaten cast members of a play—the subject of today’s FIRE press release.
As we detail in the release, WSU repeatedly insisted that the hecklers who shouted down and threatened cast members of student playwright Chris Lee’s Passion of the Musical (a parody of The Passion of the Christ that was designed to be offensive to nearly every ethnic and religious group) had an equal constitutional right to disrupt a play as the cast had to perform the play. As FIRE pointed out in its press release, that’s much like asserting that people have a constitutional right to walk into a museum and tear down any works of art they might find offensive. Of course, once FIRE found out that WSU had bought the hecklers’ tickets and helped organize their protest, the fact that campus security refused to stop them from disrupting the play began to make a lot more sense.
WSU’s actions represent what is perhaps the nadir of the campus “political correctness” movement—state university administrators organizing a mob of students to shout down a play written by a student whose views don’t agree with the officially approved views of the university. And while WSU’s higher-ups publicly defended the actions of their subordinates, it’s interesting to note that two figures deeply involved in the controversy are no longer in their old jobs at WSU. According to The Daily Evergreen student newspaper, this fall WSU President V. Lane Rawlins requested and obtained the resignation of Vice President for Student Affairs Charlene Jaeger, while Brenda Maldonado, the WSU administrator who bought the hecklers’ tickets, no longer works at the Office of Campus Involvement (hat tip to FIRE’s own Charles Mitchell). While this controversy is not given as the reason for the change, it’s certainly an interesting coincidence, and perhaps a useful warning that administrators who don’t show loyalty to the Constitution are unlikely to show loyalty to subordinates who embarrass them.
Has WSU learned its lesson? We wouldn’t go that far. After all, the university is still mired in the controversy over education student Ed Swan, who faces trouble for expressing his conservative political beliefs. And while WSU has promised not to apply unconstitutional “dispositions” criteria to its students, the dean of the College of Education told a reporter that she didn’t know whether Justice Scalia, who is not widely known as a dullard even among those who frequently disagree with him, could get a teaching degree from WSU because of his political beliefs. That’s hardly a good sign, but at least WSU has begun to take steps towards respecting its students’ constitutional rights. Faint praise, perhaps, but at least it’s a start.