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An open letter to Brandeis: stop censorship on your campus

A group of academics, celebrities and film industry officials has issued a letter to Brandeis University in response to its recent cancellation of a Lenny Bruce-inspired play on its campus.

The letter, signed by Bruce’s daughter, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, comedian Penn Jillette, and several other self-described “free speech advocates,” implores Brandeis to “reaffirm the principles of freedom of expression, inquiry, and debate upon which any institution of higher education must be based” and allow the play to take place.

“It is our understanding,” the letter-writers state, “that the play, ‘Buyer Beware,’ written by celebrated playwright and Brandeis alumnus Michael Weller, uses excerpts and ideas from Lenny Bruce’s routines as catalysts for a fictional debate about free speech on Brandeis’ campus.” Bruce’s comedy routines, the writers say, “has long been both controversial and groundbreaking,” so much so that Bruce was prosecuted and subject to numerous obscenity trials, a series of ordeals that left him “bankrupt and unable to work before dying in 1966 at the age of 40.”

“Today,” the letter states, “Bruce is revered as a champion of free speech and First Amendment principles — so much so that he was posthumously pardoned by New York Governor George Pataki in 2003. His life story serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when we censor artistic expression.”

From the letter:

Given this history, the undersigned are sensitive to the possibility that Bruce’s words may again be censored. Our unease is amplified by the fact that such censorship may occur at Brandeis University, named after the staunch free speech advocate and United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Our concern is all the greater insofar as the university is the institutional custodian of the Lenny Bruce archives and much of Bruce’s legacy.

A 2004 box set of Bruce’s comedy was titled “Let the Buyer Beware.” Perhaps not coincidentally, “Buyer Beware” is also the title of Weller’s play. Surely when Brandeis accepted the responsibility of preserving Bruce’s archives within its library, it well understood the risks associated with doing so — caveat emptor — and tacitly, if not explicitly, agreed that it would spare Bruce the injustice of committing or enabling his posthumous censorship.

In a statement responding to the cancellation of the fall production of “Buyer Beware,” Brandeis announced that “faculty members considered the challenging issues [the play] raised” and decided that more time was needed to produce the play “appropriately.” The statement goes on to relinquish the university’s responsibility for the play’s subsequent cessation by foisting responsibility upon Weller, who did not approve of this more “appropriate” production, which subsequent reports indicate was not even presented to him. According to a statement from the Dramatists Guild of America and the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, Weller “has heard only indirectly about the possibility of doing it at ‘a 60-seat black box theatre in Watertown that has some lights, and a budget for one or two professional actors.’”

Numerous reports indicate that the decision to forestall the planned production of “Buyer Beware” comes amid a concerted effort by some Brandeis students and alumni to cancel the play. The campaign was allegedly led by a Brandeis alumna, who reportedly admitted to having never read the play’s script, yet claimed that it “is an overtly racist play and will be harmful to the student population if staged.” Scholars of Bruce’s life know well that attempts at prior restraint are insidious and beget more censorship. Indeed, after Bruce was first prosecuted in one court, additional prosecutions soon followed. “Don’t lock up these 6,000 words,” Bruce pleaded to one New York City judge during a court hearing.

“What material, exactly, did the university consider too ‘challenging’ for its students and faculty?” the writers ask. “And why, when an agreement could not be reached with Weller to find a more ‘appropriate’ setting for the play, did the university decide not to stage the production as intended, and instead defaulted to functionally censoring the ‘challenging’ material instead of openly engaging with it?”

“We call upon Brandeis University to answer these questions in a manner consistent with the principles of freedom of speech to which the university claims to commit itself,” the letter states, “principles that are integral components of Lenny Bruce’s and Louis Brandeis’ legacies.”

Read the whole letter here.

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