FIRE addresses play dispute
Free speech watchdog the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education posted an open letter addressed to President Ron Liebowitz on Monday, calling upon the University to re-examine its principles of “freedom of expression, inquiry, and debate” in the wake of the “Buyer Beware” controversy.
In the letter, FIRE urged the University to either provide a better explanation for the recent cancellation of the play or run the production as originally planned. The letter was signed by Kitty Bruce, comedian Lenny Bruce’s daughter and founder of the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation; Robert Corn-Revere, the attorney who successfully petitioned New York Governor George Pataki to issue a posthumous pardon for Bruce; and magician Penn Jillette, among others.
The open letter follows a statement issued by the Dramatists Guild of America and the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund on Nov. 8, which criticized the University for failing to meet its obligation to the legacy of Lenny Bruce, whose stand-up is quoted by one of the play’s characters. The statement described his legacy as a “landmark in the advancement of free speech” and asserted that the decision to cancel the play after student and alumni protests was a violation of the trust that went along with preserving Bruce’s archives. Brandeis acquired Bruce’s photographs, papers and recordings last October.
While Lenny Bruce is considered a champion of free speech today, he was put on trial for using obscene words during his time as a comedian and was only issued a pardon 37 years after his death in 1966.
Michael Weller ’65, the recipient of the 2015 Creative Arts Award and playwright of “Buyer Beware,” raised the same challenging issues Bruce was targeted for in his play, which was originally meant to be produced this fall.
The guild writes that in canceling the play, the University has “compromised core principles of academic freedom and abdicated its educational responsibility to offer students a wide range of viewpoints regardless of how controversial they might be.” It acknowledges that the University is not required to put on a play, but maintains that “neither does anyone have a constitutional right to go through life unoffended.”
According to the statement, it is a university’s duty to expose students to views that challenge them and produce discomfort, and the Theater Arts department should explain its violation of this “basic principle of higher education,” a sentiment that FIRE echoed.
The guild also calls for new guidelines that explicitly state which viewpoints and topics may be expressed in a play performed at the University.
In the open letter, FIRE asserts that by accepting the responsibility of preserving Lenny Bruce’s archives, the University “well understood the risks associated with doing so, … [agreeing] that it would spare Bruce the injustice of committing or enabling his posthumous censorship.”
By canceling the play, the University is failing to defend the “very free speech principles for which Lenny Bruce fought throughout his life,” according to the letter.
Responding to a Nov. 6 statement by the University on “Buyer Beware,” the authors asked the University to explain what exactly in the play was too “challenging” for its students, citing the main character's challenge to the University in the play itself: "What if Lenny Bruce came to life, just for one day, and he was booked for a gig right here on campus. How would the administration react?”
The letter ends with a direct question posed to Liebowitz: “Did the Lenny Bruce archives end up in the ‘appropriate’ place?”
The authors wrote that they look forward to hearing from the University by Nov. 17, five days after the open letter’s publication.