UM draws fire for requiring reading of play on gay man

Counsel in UNC suit weighs one against Md., says it's imposing beliefs

August 23, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The University of North Carolina and University of Maryland might have picked different books for their campuswide reading programs, but they are running into similar opposition - including the threat of court challenges.

Maryland's flagship public university has ordered 10,000 copies of The Laramie Project, a play about the killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998, to distribute next week to all freshmen and all other students living on the College Park campus.

The play will be required reading in many seminars and will also be the subject of college orientation meetings in residence halls, college officials say. Other students will be encouraged, but not required, to read it, they said.

Yesterday, the lead counsel in a widely publicized lawsuit against the University of North Carolina's selection of a book about the Quran for its freshman reading program said he was considering court action against Maryland as well.

"The bringing of The Laramie Project to campus sounds for all the world as if the university is attempting to impose an orthodoxy of belief in favor of homosexuality, coercing students to accept one particular side of a hotly contested political and, indeed, religious subject," said Stephen M. Crampton, chief counsel for the American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss.

A committee of faculty, staff and students selected the play for the university's annual First Year Book program in hopes that it will stimulate campus discussions of tolerance - of homosexuals as well as other minorities, university officials say.

"Because of all the events of 2001, we were looking for a text that would deal with issues of healing and community, and we thought it was very important to have this kind of shared experience on the topic," said Phyllis A. Peres, associate dean of undergraduate studies, who served on the selection panel.

The distribution of the play comes on the heels of a nationwide debate over UNC's assignment of Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations by Haverford College Professor Michael A. Sells to this fall's 3,500 freshmen.

The Family Policy Network, based in Virginia, unsuccessfully sued to block the required reading, calling the assignment an unconstitutional religious indoctrination by a public university.

Yesterday, members of the same groups that challenged the UNC assignment expressed outrage at Maryland's selection of The Laramie Project.

"This is pure homosexual propaganda, plain and simple," said Joe Glover, president of the Family Policy Network, a socially conservative advocacy group. "It's the typical liberal mindset: I will force-feed students my view, give them no other data on the subject, and masquerade as someone who engages in free inquiry and free discussion."

Glover doubted court action could be taken against the assignment because it did not involve questions of religious freedom. But Crampton said court action against UM was not out of the question.

Associate English Professor Linda K. Coleman, who served on the selection committee, said yesterday that the panel expected the pick would generate protest. But it also expected that the ensuing debate would provide a healthy airing of views on a campus that has experienced several instances of hate crimes in recent years, she said.

The reading was also timely, she said, considering that shortly after Sept. 11, several conservative religious leaders said the rise of homosexuality was partly to blame for the terrorist attacks.

"I think students need to understand that that kind of broad speech that makes an enemy of part of our population without being backed up by reason has potentially very bad consequences," said Coleman. "I'm not saying I want students to think the same way as I do about the acceptability of being gay, but I want them to think through their positions."

Previous selections for the program have included The Diary of Anne Frank, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, stories about the Vietnam War. The other two finalists in this year's selection were Edward Said's autobiography and Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire.

This is the first year the selected book will be distributed to all on-campus students, not just freshmen. UM bought the 10,000 copies of the $11 play at a 60 percent discount from Random House. The books will bear an inscription that identifies them as being Maryland's First Year Book selection.

The play is written by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project of New York, which sent 10 of its members to Laramie four weeks after Shepard's death to interview residents. The play, which has been produced to rave reviews - and some protests - around the country, does not feature a Shepard figure and is instead based on townspeople's reactions to his death.

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