You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

February 22, 2008

Inside Higher Ed reports today that Arkansas Tech has cancelled a student production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins "out of respect for the families of those victims of the tragedies at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech, and from an abundance of caution." According to the article:

A student production of Assassins, the award-winning musical, was to have premiered Thursday night at Arkansas Tech University, but the administration banned it—and permitted a final dress rehearsal Wednesday night (so the cast could experience the play on which students have worked long hours) only on the condition that wooden stage guns were cut in half prior to the event and not used.

Torch readers may recall that Yale University attempted a similar maneuver after the Virginia Tech shootings, banning the use of any realistic-looking weapons in theatrical productions at the school. Under public pressure, Yale backed away somewhat from its original overreaction but still required audiences to be "notified in advance of the use of fake guns, swords and knives."

Those involved in the Arkansas Tech production of Assassins are rightfully upset. Ardith Morris, the faculty member who was directing the production, told Inside Higher Ed that the administration’s decision "brought ‘tears and outrage’ from students." Moreover,

Asked if she had ever called off a show previously, she said, her voice breaking, "never—including the show that opened the week my husband passed away." Even facing a personal loss, she said, "theater people" wouldn’t call off a production. "It’s just not what we do. Theater is who we are—it’s how we view the world and realize ourselves as people."

Clearly, there are serious First Amendment issues involved in a public university cancelling a theatrical production on the basis of content. Beyond that, however, this case is just a sad example of the all-too-common university practice of trying to apply meaningless Band-Aids to real and serious campus problems. It is entirely reasonable that, in the wake of recent school shootings, universities would want to do more than ever to ensure their students’ safety. But they know as well as we do that banning Broadway musicals from campus will do nothing of the sort. Rather, these types of actions—as well as other types of campus censorship like speech codes and civility oaths—simply create a veneer of safety and civility without actually doing anything to address whatever underlying issues may exist on campus.