The recent flurry of conversations surrounding theatre chat rooms, prompted in large part by a blog post from Patti Murin in the wake of the premature shutdown of the musical Nerds, have been fierce. The uproar was deemed sufficiently important to rate coverage in The New York Times and there has been a flood of commentary on Twitter, on Facebook, and yes, in chat rooms themselves since the impassioned dialogue began. In the wake of Murin’s essay, BroadwayWorld.com has announced some new approaches to its chat room policies and implemented changes on its site, some of which it says were already in the works but were accelerated by the impact of Murin’s writing.
Many have applauded Murin, but plenty of others have dissented from her opinion, saying she’s advocating an effort to control what can be said about theatre productions and those who work on them. There has been criticism of BroadwayWorld for its rather quick accommodation of some of Murin’s requests. Some devotees of the chat rooms, on Broadway World at least, feel they’re being unfairly deprived of their opportunity to give voice to all of their thoughts.
Mentioned within those conversations at various points are the terms “free speech” and “censorship,” terms that also seem to figure rather prominently in some of our current political discourse. But whether in the national political arena or in the somewhat more narrowly defined community of theatre fandom, the terms are being applied somewhat indiscriminately. That suggests a refresher is in order.
* * *
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
In an essay on the website of the National Constitution Center, Geoffrey R. Stone and Eugene Volokh write, “What does this mean today? Generally speaking, it means that the government may not jail, fine, or impose civil liability on people or organizations based on what they say or write, except in exceptional circumstances.”
It should be noted that the Constitution does not give everyone the right to say anything they want wherever they want and whenever they want. What it speaks to is the fact that the government may not inhibit people’s rights to express themselves. That means that if you own a theatre, you have the right to present the work you choose, or even the right to simply stand upon your stage and state your opinion, and the government cannot interfere. It does not mean, however, that you have to give over your venue to anyone who wishes to use it, to present their own work, or to express their own opinions.
When the government tries to stop someone from writing, or speaking, or performing work, that is an act of censorship. Censorship is, at its core, act of wielding power against speech; of using governmental authority, or some other manner of power, to shut down free expression. The definition on FindLaw.com cites it as an “institution, system or practice” against unfettered speech.
This is not to say that absolutely every form of speech is protected in absolutely every scenario or that every policy which controls speech in every circumstance in censorship. You may have heard such terms as libel, slander and defamation, for example, which are forms of speech that may be deemed intentionally and maliciously injurious to reputations. This doesn’t necessarily restrain free speech, but it can be grounds for penalties for certain speech meeting stringent criteria. You can’t, for example, engage in speech that directly incites or produces imminent lawless action.
This is hardly a comprehensive survey about the laws protecting and in some cases limiting speech. None of us have the time for that, unless one is currently in law school. But this will serve for the subject at hand.
* * *
Thank you for your patience. Now back to show biz.
No arm of the government has leapt to the defense of Patti Murin, the cast of Nerds or any artist or production that may have been spoken about unfavorably, or even cruelly, in a chat room. What has happened is that Murin made a plea, struck a chord, and Robert Diamond of BroadwayWorld – who Murin happens to know and who I know casually as well – took her words to heart and decided to take some steps to ameliorate the situation. Because he owns the company and the site, he’s entirely within in his rights to do so; BroadwayWorld is neither a public right nor a public utility. It’s all Diamond’s. In so far as how he chooses to administer BroadwayWorld, there’s nothing anyone can really do about it, unless he was, for example, fostering defamation or providing a platform for individuals to advocate illegal acts.
Those who don’t like new policies at BroadwayWorld can head to Reddit, or All That Chat, or probably any number of other places online, or set up their own theatre chat site. They haven’t had the Internet taken away from them; they’ve just had one online resource, that they’ve gotten used to using in certain ways, changed. Like any consumers faced with a product change, they can take their business elsewhere if they wish. Perhaps if too many of them do, the economic model of Broadway World will take a hit. But that’s Diamond’s decision and should it happen, Diamond’s problem. There’s no abrogation of free speech here, just the assertion of a business’s rights in order to maintain its brand.
That said, how this manner of supervision – which was always BroadwayWorld’s purview –will be administered could be tricky. Will Diamond have someone monitoring the site at all times – 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Given the potential volume of messages to be surveyed, and queries or complaints fielded, what will be considered a reasonable response time? “Snark for snark’s sake,” as stated in the site new message on its practices, isn’t a carefully articulated definition of what will and won’t be permitted to remain online, so what kind of policy manual exists or will be created, and how can it be insured that its guidelines are interpreted consistently by what will presumably be a tag team of arbiters? That’s entirely Diamond’s business too. The ongoing vitality and utility of the BroadwayWorld chat rooms will surely be judged by them. Even when the blocking of speech on a privately owned medium is entirely permissible, its equitable application in the real world can prove extremely thorny.
Part of what allows all manner of internet chat to flourish is the privacy and even anonymity the medium affords. Those who relish their incognito strafing of performers and shows have a great deal of protection, but they may do well to look at what constitutes libel, slander and defamation. If the subject of a verbal assault has a mind to really take exception to something they deem too harsh, too cruel, too just plain wrong, combined with the resources to do something about it, they may yet challenge chat room denizens and the operators of the boards. Take note of the way James Woods is currently bringing suit against a pseudonymous Twitter user for defamation, and seeking monetary damages for online remarks. What happens there could prove informative and influential.
We can always benefit from honest, open, candid, entertaining, and yes, critical conversation about the theatre. With that, there will probably always be people who have those conversations about theatre in ways that can be hurtful, cruel, and ugly. That’s regrettable to some, but that is the byproduct of living in a country founded upon the idea of open speech, and living in an era where everyone has the means to broadcast their opinions. If individuals and companies choose not to provide a forum for such dialogue (or diatribes), that’s well within their right, just as others have the right to build theatresnark.com, if they’re so inclined.
With Murin’s blog post and BroadwayWorld’s response only days old, there’s much to still play out. Some people have made some adjustments and others may have to. That’s just the way it goes when there’s effective advocacy; it’s to be seen whether a well-meaning response proves feasible and even desirable in the long term. But the bottom line is that no one’s rights have been trampled on and no one has been censored. At least so far as that aspect of this issue goes, while you’re welcome to claim your rights are being denied for as long as you like, maybe it’s time to chat about something else.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative.
Civil and respectful comments on all aspects of this topic are welcome; all comments are moderated before they appear.