City of Lansing Censors Shakespeare

August 09, 2005

DETROIT -- In a letter sent today to the City of Lansing, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the ACLU Lansing Branch are advising city officials to reconsider its decision to censor a Shakespeare in the park production.

“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 (SWS), 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 citing the reason that the stage blood might be offensive to viewers. 

The same production is being performed in August in East Lansing.  According to Mr. 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 which include scenes of violence and sexuality.

Sunsets with Shakespeare has been performing plays in the Lansing area since 1999.  SWS has made a commitment to sharing the great works 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 between 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 our society’s acceptance and glorification of violence in entertainment and other media. 

Importantly, director Todd 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 the show. Mr. Heywood and SWS have also offered to have the play produced in a secluded part of a Lansing park, post additional signs warning of the PG-13 nature and host "talk backs" following the Lansing shows.

“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,” Heywood added.

In the letter, the ACLU recognizes 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 Mr. Heywood and his theater company. 

"Parents, not government, should monitor what children see, read, hear or play," said Carolyn Koenig, president of the Lansing ACLU Branch. "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 asks the City to respond to its letter by Friday.
To read the letter, go to: www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/attachments/shakespeareletter.pdf