statement against censorship

Below is a joint letter sent to the president of Santa Monica College regarding the school’s cancellation of the play By the River Rivanna by G. Bruce Smith. While the letter recounts the facts and addresses the issue of academic freedom implicated by the school’s actions, at the heart of this matter is a violation of the rights of the playwright, G. Bruce Smith, whose work was judged before a finished version of it had been read or seen.  In writing the play, Mr. Smith (a white male) watched videos from the Smithsonian to make sure he accurately reflected the history of the period, as well as the modes of speech of the characters.  He had the script reviewed and approved by African American consultants, including a playwright and a historian. He then worked with the director to make numerous revisions to the play in response to possible audience concerns. 

Despite his efforts, the school newspaper published the unfinished script (in violation of his copyright) prior to the production and, subsequently, African American student groups on campus complained to the administration, arguing that neither Smith nor the director (herself a woman of color) had any right to tell this story because of their respective ethnicities. So this issue goes beyond the sensitivity, accuracy, or even the quality inherent in the text of the play; it is about who has a right to tell a story and who gets to decide. And, while that may be a valid topic for debate AFTER the play has been seen, ethnicity is not a legitimate pretext for silencing any author. See the play first, then argue about it.  Any other strategy constitutes a “heckler’s veto” and violates the constitutional principles of free expression.

- The Dramatists Guild and The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund

Read more about producing theater on campus in the DLDF’s toolkit, Dramatic Changes: A Guide to Producing Live Stage Works on College Campuses in the 21st Century.

Dear President Jeffery:

We recognize that the play can no longer go on in its original form, as it was tied to the academic calendar. We urge the administration to help the theater department locate an alternative venue for the play, and to create clear policies for when and how theater productions will be chosen.


PEN America
Dramatists Guild
Dramatists Legal Defense Fund
National Coalition Against Censorship



Member Newsroom