February 29, 2008

Little Rock, Arkansas - Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas applauded the decision by Arkansas Technical University President Robert Brown to lift the ban he had imposed on the Theater Department showing the Sondheim-Weidman musical, "Assassins." Dr. Brown first announced he would permit only one closed performance of the musical for family members of the cast. He later postponed the play indefinitely, "out of respect for the families of victims" of shootings at other campuses, because of the play's "portrayal of graphically violent scenes." The University later indicated that concerns about security issues that might be raised by the sounds of gunfire in the production prompted the postponement.

An original ban on student journalists reporting on the controversy was also lifted.
The ACLU of Arkansas worked with faculty, students, cast, and audience members who opposed the University’s decisions, and sent a letter to Dr. Brown and to the attorney for the University on Thursday, February 28, 2008, expressing concern that the indefinite postponement amounted to cancellation, and a violation of free speech. The letter urged the administration to meet with the affected department heads and faculty this week to reschedule the performance. Late Thursday evening, the ACLU received word that the University had reconsidered and that the play would be rescheduled.

“We all agree that there is too much senseless violence in the world,” said ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar. “The answer is to talk freely about the problem and try to come up with solutions, not to stifle speech, or images, or other forms of expression that may be disturbing to some people. By agreeing to let the show go on, Dr. Brown did what was best for all involved, including the University.” The ACLU letter said, in part, “We understand the University’s expressed concerns, however it is our opinion that the University’s postponement of the play, and prohibition on news reporting by students about the play or postponement violate the First Amendment rights of students, faculty, and the audience. The purpose of this letter is to seek a resolution of the matter with the cooperation of the University. ... As you know, hundreds of hours of work went into the preparation of this performance, and unless the play is performed this academic semester, continued indefinite postponement is tantamount to cancellation. The ACLU of Arkansas asks the University to take this opportunity to remedy this situation of its own accord and support the re-staging of this production as written, without any negative consequence to anyone involved in the production or in reporting on the postponement of the production.”

Co-author of the play John Weidman also wrote to Dr. Brown. Weidman wrote: “As the father of a son in college, I understand and support your goal of providing your students with a campus which is as safe as it possibly can be in what have turned into dangerous and uncertain times. What parent does not want his child protected? As the co-author of ‘Assassins,’ however, I do not believe that canceling this musical play helps achieve that goal. On the contrary, [I] believe it undermines it. In many way[s], ‘Assassins’ was written as a response to the extraordinary pain and grief which Americans suffered as a result of the Kennedy Assassination. ... The ... question [to me] was what would move a man or a woman, a citizen of arguably the most open and fluid democratic society in the history of the world to attack our President? By exploring the malignant impulses which motivated each of the men and women who either killed or attempted to kill the President of the United States, we hoped to reveal a pattern of grievance which would provoke a discussion—a discussion of what we could do as a society to alter our behavior to reduce the likelihood that one of these awful attacks would ever happen again.”

Weidman also noted that the graphically violent movie, “American Gangsters,” was shown on campus the night the play was to be performed.

“Those involved in this production are elated,” said ACLU of Arkansas staff attorney Holly Dickson. “They had prepared for months for this show. All they wanted was to perform their musical, and they are working hard to make it happen. It never should have been canceled, but re-thinking was the right thing for the University to do. We expect the show will go on without any further hitches.”
The performance of “Assassins” has been rescheduled for a four-day run to begin March 14, and will have reserved seating.

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