Play’s free speech arguments go beyond the stage

by Karlee Weinmann

Supporters and dissenters of the University’s production of “The Pope and Witch” used the First Amendment as the foundation for their arguments.

Through the play’s run, objectors shared views in town hall-style and panel discussions, as well as organized protests.

Catholic activists criticized the play because of its religious satire, while the University and supporters label the play as an exercise of academic freedom.

After a flood of media attention, the play opened earlier this month with approximately 70 protesters gathered in an area designated for picketing.

Across the country, a growing number of universities and cities specify certain places as “free speech zones.” The cordoned areas are meant to create a balance between security risks and the people’s right to speak without restraint.

Critics of the designated demonstration spots argue that while there is a certain responsibility to maintain security, inhibition of free speech is inevitable.

John Whitehead, lawyer and president of a human rights and civil liberties organization called the Rutherford Institute, handled a 2002 case in which West Virginia University administration ultimately relinquished on-campus free speech zones.

“You shouldn’t be able to avoid (free speech),” he said. “(Zones) censor the people in the zone, because it allows you to avoid (protesters).”

Whitehead said the upsurge in sanctioned speech began in the mid-’90s, alongside the implementation of other stringent “zero tolerance” policies.

Some universities have discussed banning people uninvited by students from speaking on campuses, a fact Whitehead attributes to growing disengagement among younger generations and post-Sept. 11 paranoia.

“Universities have always been quintessential free speech areas,” he said. “Student government groups need to start protesting this kind of stuff.”

Some of the most hotly contested free speech zones are those that remove protesters from the areas surrounding their target audience. For example, protesters wishing to speak against administrators might be sent to a specified free speech area in a parking lot far from the institution’s administrative complex.

The place for the productions’ protesters on the University campus is directly in front of the Rarig Center steps, where protesters can be seen without directly interfering with ticket-payers’ entrance to the building.

Justin Christy, communications manager for the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, said those who sang hymns and prayed to rally against “The Pope and the Witch” naturally arranged themselves in that location without direction from security officials.

“It doesn’t surface for Shakespeare projects or musicals, but we do have that plan in place that our house management staff knows about,” he said.

University police Lt. Chuck Miner said there is no specific written protocol for handling protests on campus, but providing a safe environment for both protesters and onlookers is paramount.

“Every situation is different,” he said. “We’re generally pretty flexible, pretty accommodating to people who are expressing their views on things.”

Until March’s contested presentation, the University’s theater program had never been the subject of such widespread debate, Christy said.

The only other controversy-spawning University production in recent memory was the spring 2005 performance of “The Laramie Project,” based on the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard.

Protesters were anticipated, though none staged on-campus rallies.

Student artwork urging tolerance displayed in Rarig Center during the play’s run disappeared, though authorities couldn’t establish a definitive connection between the missing art and protest of the play.

Following a performance of “The Pope and the Witch,” an organized forum offered attendees a chance to voice varying attitudes, a departmental custom for University productions. The play’s director, Robert Rosen, said he was satisfied with the discussion, which largely deviated from its prearranged moderated format.

“There was dissention, and yet the play was allowed to be performed and those who had opposing points of view were allowed to express their opposition to it, whether in protest or at the discussion,” he said. “It was amazing.”