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Dewhurst Versus the First Amendment

ACLU legal director questions lite guv's role in shutting down student play

By Richard Whittaker, 4:51PM, Mon. Mar. 29, 2010

Lisa Graybill of the ACLU of Texas:
Lisa Graybill of the ACLU of Texas: "Put all the good ideas and bad ideas out there and let the people decide."
Photo by Richard Whittaker

There are two big questions revolving around Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst pressuring students at Tarleton State University to cancel a performance of a play: One, when did he become the morality police and two, has he ever actually seen the play?

We would ask him directly, but multiple phone calls to Dewhurst's press office over the last four days have gone unanswered. So all we have to go on are his press releases.

The play in question, Corpus Christi, was one of nine to be performed in an abbreviated form (so not even the entire text), paid for by students, to be viewed only by students as part of a class project. After a series of complaints and threats from people who seemingly have nothing to better to do than complain about a student play, Dewhurst stepped in - not to protect the students, but to lend gravitas to the mob. When the university finally canceled the performances and other events on campus then, as giddy as the lite guv gets, Dewhurst released this statement (currently to be found on his campaign website but issued to the press via his office):

The cancellation of the play, Corpus Christi, by the university was the right thing to do. While I'm a strong defender of free speech, we must also protect the rights and reasonable expectations of Texas taxpayers and how their money is used. A play that is completely contrary to the standards of decency and moral beliefs of the vast majority of Texans should not be performed using any state resources, especially by an institution of higher learning.
ACLU of Texas Legal Director Lisa Graybill retorted, "He got half of it right, in terms of saying that the First Amendment is what governs here. The 'but' is where I would say he went wrong."

Before the cancellation, Tarleton president F. Dominic Dottavio penned an editorial for the Fort Worth Star Telegram. In it, he wrote, "As a public university we are legally bound to allow the student production to go forward," and that he had received legal opinions that to force the cancellation would be censorship. It was therefore left to course lecturer and fine arts associate professor Mark Holtorf to cancel it for safety reasons.

Graybill said, "Initially, the university made the right call" by allowing the performance to go ahead and that Dottavio was "exactly right" in his analysis of the First Amendment issues. "It was good to see an affirmation of these constitutional principles from a university administration." Even if the play could be seen by some people as blasphemy (which, some folks may need reminding, isn't a crime) "that's not a legitimate reason. To preserve the safety and security of students and keep the educational forums on the learning environment, those are legitimate constitutional concerns."

As for Dewhurst's actions, Graybill was diplomatic but pointed. "David Dewhurst has the right of free speech, just like everybody else," she said. "But if and to the extent that he tried to inappropriately use his influence to persuade the university to stop the play, that would be outside the scope of his appropriate responsibilities."

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