It was a bad week for free speech. The most public event was Sony’s cancellation of the release of “The Interview,” Seth Rogan’s satirical movie about a fictional assassination plot against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Then, the nonprofit theatre community was stunned by the firing of Ari Roth, artistic director of Theatre J, apparently for programming decisions that explored the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than blindly supporting the theatre’s parent organization’s perspective that “the plight of Israelis and the plight of Palestinians simultaneously was no longer welcome in our community centers.” (Theatre J, as are many Jewish theatres, is under the organizational umbrella of Jewish Community Center.) Sixty-one artistic directors co-signed an open letter to the DCJCC clearely articulating why the free circulation of ideas is important:
A free people need a free art; debate, dissent and conflict are at the heart of what makes theater work, and what makes democracy possible.
Also disturbing is another, more tragic, signature event of the last few days: the shooting of two police officers by an apparently mentally man, who indicated he was acting in retaliation for police action against Black people (the officers were not White, but that’s not really part of the story). My concern relative to free speech is the reaction of the police union, which seems to blame peaceful protestors – and the mayor who supported their right to free speech – for the murder of the officers. Police should be defending free speech rights, not criticizing free speech in action.
But I digress. What I am really concerned about here is:
the gradual destruction or diminution of something
We see the erosion of free speech when people or organizations are motivated by money and power rather than the transformative power of art. The DCJCC is the organizational parent for Theatre J and while I don’t know the specifics of their financial relationship, assume the JCC has some control over the theatre’s resources, as it certainly does over its executive staffing. Resources can “buy” speech, as is evidenced by our increasingly monetized electoral system.
The threat of withholding resources can have an equally chilling effect on free speech. Another sad event of the past week is the closing of Actors Theatre of Phoenix. The company’s financial troubles since the 2008 recession have been well documented, but I wonder to what extent they date back even further, to a 2006 production of Albee’s “The Goat: Or, Who is Sylvia” that precipitated the withdrawal of at least one major corporate sponsorship. I applaud Matthew Weiner for not shying away from such material – even in troubled times. But free speech and, most importantly, the ability of art to function as a site of “debate, dissent, and conflict” are eroded when money is used as both a carrot and a stick. The problem with erosion is that eventually, it can lead to a landslide.