Dr. Sean Fanelli, a Franciscan brother for 11 years, went on to become a college administrator and is now president of Nassau County Community College on Long Island. In recent weeks, his qualifications as an academic and as a Catholic have been strenuously challenged by some members of the community. He is at odds with Bishop John R. McGann of the Rockville Center Diocese and Nassau County Executive Francis Purcell. And Gov. Mario Cuomo, who describes himself as a passionate defender of the Constitution, has carefully cheered on both sides in the dispute.
The cause of the furor is a savagely satirical play, "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You," by Christopher Durang. It has had successful, if turbulent, runs in a number of American cities as well as Dublin. Some Catholics consider the play bigoted and blasphemous. The central character is a fierce nun, highly suspicious of Vatican II, who teaches in a parochial school. Other Catholics insist that some of the parochial school teachers they had as children could step into the part without a rehearsal.
When the theater arts department at Nassau County Community College decided to schedule 10 performances of the play this summer, considerable pressure was put on the college to abandon this highly provocative undertaking. County Executive Francis Purcell initially refused to interfere with the production because, he said, of his deep belief in academic freedom. But, then again, Purcell is up for reelection this November, Nassau County is about 50 percent Catholic and Purcell turned smartly around to express his deep belief that the play should not be performed at a college supported by taxpayers' funds. All but one of the six- member board of supervisors marched behind Purcell.
"We've had over 500 pieces of mail about the play," says President Fanelli, who himself finds parts of the play offensive. "Only about 50 letters mentioned the First Amendment; the rest want the play closed down." One writer, Fanelli continues, "accused me of having crossed 'the invisible line' between academic freedom and academic license. That was very helpful. They don't seem to understand that our role is not to protect our students from ideas, but to prepare them for ideas."
Of the six members of the cast, five are Catholic, including the actress playing Sister Mary Ignatius. "They've been getting pressure too," says Victor Abravaya, chairman of the theater program and director of the play. "What really bothers the five who are Catholic is that people are questioning their Catholicism. But none of them has dropped out of the play. We all know that if we lose on this, the next thing the censors will do is go through the library and pull out books. It would be the same argument: why should their tax money go for books they find offensive?"
The argument that tax money should not be used for books or performances that offend particular segments of a community is a commonplace among would-be censors of public school libraries and public libraries across the nation. Aside from the counter-commonplace that the Bill of Rights was meant to fend off majoritarianism in these matters, the vision of public schools, and colleges, being permitted only books and plays that offend no one brings to mind South African President Pieter W. Botha rather than Thomas Jefferson.
Yet just such an argument has been bought by the usually thoughtful Rep. Robert Mrazek (D-N.Y.), who cosigned a letter with his less thoughtful long Island colleagues Norman Lent (R-N.Y.) and Raymond McGrath (R-N.Y.), urging that the presentation of "Sister Mary Ignatius" be blocked. Everyone, Mrazek assures me, has a right to write or stage a play, regardless of its content. It's only when public funds are involved that the First Amendment must be used with caution.
Mario Cuomo was asked to come out for censorship by County Executive Purcell. The governor's response, delivered by his director of state operations, reminded me of Abraham Lincoln's account of the frontier woman who was so remarkably evenhanded that when she saw her husband in a life-and-death struggle with a bear, she cried out, "Go it husband! Go it bear!"
The governor said that the college knew it was asking for trouble when it scheduled this play. But we have freedom of speech, which also allows for criticism of those putting on the play. It's up to the trustees of the college, who also have freedom of speech, the governor went on, to "decide what productions may or may not be allowed on campus."
Then came the final sentence of the governor's bold statement: "The college must expect to be held accountable by the community for its independent exercise of judgment." Of course it must. "But," as a professor at the college said to me, "couldn't the governor have found room for just one line about where he stands? Does he think the First Amendment can coexist with Sister Mary Ignatius at a public college?"
A majority of the board of trustees of the college thinks it can. On July 16 the board voted 4-2 to let Sister Mary Ignatius explain it all. To the governor too.