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Univ. responds to FIRE letter, clarifying ‘Buyer Beware’ situation

By Emily Sorkin Smith and Elianna Spitzer

Section: News

November 17, 2017

In response to a letter written by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), President Ron Liebowitz stated that “Buyer Beware,” a play by an alum, was neither “cancelled,” “censored” nor “abandoned” by Brandeis University and called these suggestions a “misrepresentation of the facts.”

In their open letter dated Nov. 13, FIRE criticized the cancellation of “Buyer Beware” by alum Michael Weller ’65 that was originally slated to be performed on campus this month. The open letter from FIRE requested the university re-invite Weller to put on “Buyer Beware” at Brandeis and explain what material the university considered too challenging to present.

The response from Brandeis said that the university is not “avoiding or ducking ‘challenging issues.’” Liebowitz reiterated that the theater department originally postponed the play from the fall to the spring semester and that it Weller’s decision, not the university’s, which led to the cancellation of the play.

The university plans to create a team-taught course to “confront difficult topics head on and to provide students with tools with which to engage in contentious conversations,” according to Liebowitz’s response. Weller told The Brandeis Hoot he does not plan to grant the university copyright permission to use his play within a course.

FIRE told The Hoot they are reviewing the university’s response.

Over the past few weeks, local and national outlets picked up The Hoot’s “Buyer Beware” coverage in early November. Outlets Breitbart, WBUR, the Boston Globe and the New York Times reported on the story.

To the knowledge of The Hoot, none of these publications were able to obtain a copy of the script while reporting on the story; instead they hyperlinked or quoted The Hoot’s reporting. None contacted The Hoot during the course of their reporting.

The Dramatists Guild of America and FIRE responded to this national coverage by drafting letters to Brandeis University. Members from FIRE did not read the “Buyer Beware” script before writing a letter characterizing the situation as limiting speech. Weller read the FIRE letter before it went out.

National media and the letters from FIRE and the Dramatist’s Guild focused on the fact that the play uses quotes from Brandeis University’s Lenny Bruce archives. Students opposed to putting the play on at Brandeis say the relation to Lenny Bruce has little to do their opposition.

“[The play], it’s not really about Lenny Bruce,” said Andrew Child ’19, a theater Undergraduate Departmental Representative (UDR) who has been active in opposing Buyer Beware. He said the play hides behind Lenny Bruce and uses his name “as a trigger word. I think Lenny Bruce is in there as a scapegoat.”

Child explained in an interview that what students take issue with is the portrayal of minority characters as stereotypical, lacking depth or appearing offensive. He said the play is also simply not well done, citing several aspects of dialogue and plot.

On Nov. 15, Child posted an open letter in response to FIRE’s open letter. In the letter, Child says that as a theater department UDR, he would like to respond to “poorly-informed allegations against Brandeis University’s cancellation of Michael Weller’s Buyer Beware.”

Child wrote that the Brandeis administration has “demonstrated outrageous levels of incompetence in attempting to scramble to cover up any mistakes and to keep all parties moderately appeased.”

Child, in an interview with The Hoot, expressed his belief that “Intentionality in selecting and curating a season is never censorship,” explaining the Department of Theater Arts selection process. “We have discussions about: Is this appropriate to be done this year? Or this semester? Is this responding to our goals? Is this responding to what the campus needs?”

Child said, of Bruce, “His words are important. They need to be preserved and they need to be remembered.” He wrote in an open letter, “We can acknowledge that Bruce lived in a very different time than the one we live in now and that perhaps his tactics and his battles would have been different had he been alive in 2017, but we cannot diminish his importance.”

CORRECTION:  A previous version of this article said that FIRE did not speak to the playwright, Michael Weller, before sending their letter. Weller did read the letter before it was sent.

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