The cancellation of Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi by Tarleton State University, under pressure from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and others, is an affront to academic freedom and First Amendment principles of free speech.
The play was denounced by Tarleton’s president, Dominic Dottavio, who called it “crude and irreverent.” Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst opined that “no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.”
Even a play that depicts conduct considered “morally reprehensible” or “irreverent” by some is fully protected under the First Amendment, which prohibits the enforcement of any specific view of religion or morality. It is deeply troubling that people in leadership roles – a university president and high elected official – should display such disregard for, if not ignorance of, basic constitutional principles.
The University claims that the play’s cancellation was due to concerns over “safety and security” because of threatening emails. Even if that were the real reason for the cancellation, it is hardly a legitimate excuse. By giving in to threats of violence, the University only encourages them. Our constitution envisions reasoned discourse as the way to resolve disputes, not threats designed to intimidate and silence discussion and debate.
The Catholic League has been in the business of attacking Corpus Christi since 1998 when the play premiered at The Manhattan Theater Club; threats of violence were also reported then, but the play was presented without incident. Corpus Christi has since been produced on college campuses many times without incident, even in the face of a lawsuit to halt production at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and legislative threats to cut Florida Atlantic University’s funding. In these and other cases, the play was, correctly, allowed to go on. Tarleton State’s cancellation of the play stands in marked contrast, as an affront to our constitutional right to speak freely and to make our own decisions about the value of a painting, book, or play.
We urge Tarleton State University to re-schedule the play, not only to salvage its reputation as a university that supports the American tradition of intellectual freedom, but to demonstrate its refusal to cave in to the threat of political and religious attacks.