ACLU Urges City of Lansing to Reconsider Censorship of Shakespeare in the Park

August 9, 2005 12:00 am

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LANSING, MI – In a letter sent today to the City of Lansing, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Lansing branch of the ACLU advised city officials to reconsider their decision to censor a Shakespeare in the Park production of “Titus Andronicus.”

“Parks are public forums where the constitutional protection of expression is strongest – even when the expression is controversial or offensive,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director. “We are alarmed that a city would consider censoring a play by one of the greatest playwrights of all time.”

Todd Heywood, a Lansing resident, and his theater company, Sunsets with Shakespeare, requested permission to perform a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” at a Lansing city park. Their request was denied by the Department of Parks and Recreation; officials said that the stage blood might be offensive to the audience.

The same production is being performed this month in East Lansing. According to Heywood, Lansing has previously approved performances of “I Hate Hamlet,” “Picnic” and “Lysistrata 2411 A.D.” as well as a showing of the movie “The Longest Yard,” all of which include scenes of violence and sexuality.

Sunsets with Shakespeare (SWS) has been performing plays in the Lansing area since 1999 and has made a commitment to sharing the great plays of Shakespeare with audiences who have had little access to his work.

“We have always been sensitive to what is acceptable to our audiences in terms of violence and sexuality,” said Todd Heywood, director of SWS. “When there is debate within the group, we air on the conservative side of things, choosing to cut actions and concepts which might offend people.”

While Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” contains violent scenes, SWS’s updated production hopes to use the play to make a political statement about society’s acceptance and glorification of violence in entertainment and other media. .

The ACLU noted that Heywood and SWS have taken steps to ensure that audience members are aware of the production’s violent content before coming to the show. All advance publicity has contained a notice that the production is rated PG-13. In addition, an announcement about the violent content will be made before every performance. Heywood and SWS have also offered to produce the play in a secluded part of a Lansing park, to post additional signs warning of the PG-13 nature of the content and to host “talk backs” following the performances.

“It is disappointing that a city such as Lansing cannot see the benefit of using the arts to create dialogue about social issues such as violence,” said Heywood.

In the letter sent today to Lansing officials, the ACLU said it recognized that while Lansing may have been motivated by good intentions, its refusal to issue a permit for the performance clearly violates the First Amendment rights of Heywood and his theater company.

“Parents, not government, should monitor what children see, read, hear or play,” said Carol Koenig, president of the Lansing Branch of the ACLU. “As the Supreme Court has repeatedly found, the responsibility of shielding children from potentially offensive expression lies with the parents, not the government.”

The ACLU has asked the city to respond to its letter by Friday.

To read the letter, go to:

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