A Public University's Defense of Free Expression: The Issues and Events in the Staging of 'the Normal Heart'


In 1989, some Springfield, Missouri residents demanded cancellation of the Southwest Missouri State University (SMSU) theater department's production of Larry Kramer's play, 'The Normal Heart,' which they alleged to be obscene. Opponents purchased newspaper advertisements which charged that the publicly funded production promoted a 'homosexual, anti-family lifestyle.' They held a rally, which attracted approximately 1,200 demonstrators. SMSU's attorney argued that the First Amendment barred cancellation absent substantial government interest, and asserted that the play was not obscene. Play opponents did not raise constitutional arguments, but suggested that freedom without commitment to moral order amounted to a 'free-for-all.' Some proponents of the production used the occasion to further AIDS education, while others labelled the play's critics as bigots. An arson incident brought national attention to the controversy and accusations from both sides in the dispute. The university formed a committee to oversee security for the play's performances. Rhetorical strategies used by SMSU managed to divert attention away from the idea of public funding for allegedly immoral activities and toward the idea of free expression, while assuring the play's presentation. While AIDS awareness may have been heightened, gay rights issues were overshadowed by the controversy. (Forty endnotes are included.) (SG) (Copyright applies to all Abstracts.)



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Public University's Defense of Free Expression: The Issues & Events in the Staging of 'The Normal Heart.'