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. 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. Constitution re 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 broadawy redress of grievances.
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Generally speaking, it means that cha government may not jail, fine, or impose civil liability on people or organizations based on what they say or write, except in exceptional circumstances. 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.
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The definition on FindLaw. 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 libelslander and defamationfor example, which are forms of speech that may be deemed intentionally and maliciously injurious to reputations. 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. 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.
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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. Will Diamond have someone monitoring the site at all times — 24 hours rkoms 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?
Char 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. Take note of the way James Woods is currently bringing suit against a pseudonymous Twitter use r for defamation, and seeking monetary damages for online remarks. What happens there could prove informative and influential.
With that, there will probably always be people who have those conversations about theatre in ways that can be hurtful, cruel, and ugly. Some people have made some adjustments and others may have to. 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.