Temporary or not, unilaterally made or not, Dean Betty Trachtenberg’s ban on the use of realistic stage weapons in Yale productions is an affront to the entire University.
Ours is a community founded on and sustained by ideas and the expression of those ideas. Freedom of expression is one of Yale’s most cherished values, one without which the University’s mission cannot be accomplished. This latest censorship undermines and makes a mockery of not only student theatrical productions but also the most serious ideals of the University.
Yale theater groups may be seen as a fun activity on campus, but their productions are not mere fun and games. Theater, like all forms of art, attempts to propose, debate, engage with and provide for the experience of ideas. Swapping realistic weapons for obviously fake ones thwarts those aims. It is easy enough to imagine a frightening scene turned comic by a change in props. Such an alteration, when externally imposed, can only properly be called censorship.
Ironically, it is often through art that we try to understand and cope with the horrors of the world. In the wake of a tragedy such as last week’s shootings at Virginia Tech, we need to do all we can to encourage dialogue. America is a country that has a bizarre relationship with guns and violence. As last week showed, even the academy is not free of that relationship. To stifle dialogue on violence by censoring productions using weapons is to turn a blind eye to the world.
The media’s pictures of the gun-toting killer have undoubtedly been traumatic for many in the last week. Nevertheless, the media had every right to publish them. Yale’s policy on freedom of expression purports a stronger defense of expression than that provided by the First Amendment, but the policy has been ignored this past week.
What would be a reasonable response in the wake of last week’s horrific events? It would be reasonable to require that performances including weapons or violence be prefaced with an announcement stating that those who may be traumatized by displays of stage violence may not want to see the performance. Such a requirement should allay any concern for the emotional safety of audiences and would only impose on productions in the same way as requiring them to comply with the fire code and identify the fire exits to the audience.
The University’s position on freedom of expression, often known as the Woodward Report, is unequivocal and incontrovertible. It has been affirmed by the faculty of Yale College and is incorporated in the Undergraduate Regulations. It specifically states that no member of the University has a right to prevent free expression and that “every official of the university, moreover, has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.”
Dean Trachtenberg’s actions have failed the ideals and the rules of the University. Others may have been involved in the decision, but she has made herself a symbol of indifference to these ideals and rules. It is easy in the wake of such tragedy for one’s first impulses to betray one’s ideals, but Dean Trachtenberg’s actions are not the result of mistaken first impulses. In defending her actions she has affirmed her disregard for freedom of expression. Moreover, her quotations in yesterday’s News express her mistaken belief that students’ reactions have not been strong and widespread, her contempt for those in the arts and elsewhere who think freedom of expression means something, and her willingness to set aside Yale’s ideals for nothing.
Most obviously, the ban on the use of realistic stage weapons should be lifted. Dean Trachtenberg should apologize to the cast and crew of “Red Noses” for imposing unjustifiably on their production, and she should apologize to the University community for her assault on our shared values. If Dean Trachtenberg will not attempt to right these wrongs, she should resign, despite her impending retirement. Yale’s policies and ideals do not allow one to censor expression and remain a member of the University community.
As the administration has allowed one of its own to flout our rules and values, it should reaffirm those values by which it is willing to stand fast. It should affirm them openly and swiftly by its words, but it must also affirm them constantly by its actions.
Patrick Ward is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.