University defends freedom of expression

Despite controversy, the University will include “The Pope and the Witch.”

The theater is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation,” said Stella Adler, one of America’s most influential actresses.

Of course, this truth about life and the social situation is subject to different authors. Playwrights, like musicians and painters, communicate different things about the world we live in, be it insightful, boring, wrong or otherwise. And, regardless of the individual merits of each expression, the blend of these opinions is profoundly constructive. Discourse refines our society. But, more important than these ideas or the artists themselves, is the freedom to express oneself – it creates the forum.

On this principle, we commend the University for not removing the controversial play “The Pope and the Witch” from the theater program’s schedule. Written by Italian Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo, it satirizes organized religion, specifically Catholicism, by depicting the pope in a less-than-holy light. For instance, the storyline includes drug addicts and the mafia.

When the play was added to the schedule, several people and one organization in particular, the New York-based Catholic League, voiced strong opposition. Some labeled the play pure defamation and hate speech. The opposition even included a visit between Archbishop Harry Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and University President Bob Bruininks.

Ultimately, the University decided that the artistic value of the play warranted its showing. Without doubt, this is the right decision. The freedom of expression also envelops the freedom to disagree. The world bore witness to this when several cartoons depicting Mohammed were printed last year. With respect to taste, controversial ideas have an important role in constructive discourse, which is why we should be wary of any attempt to limit the discussion.

There will undoubtedly be debates over the play’s performance next year, and they should be encouraged. Religion deserves respect, but that doesn’t preclude it from discussion. Ironically, some of the most important religious prophets we’ve ever known made history on this notion.