Next week's city council meeting in Ocala, Florida will include an unusual discussion: Are Eve Ensler’s internationally celebrated work of political theater, The Vagina Monologues, and burlesque shows "appropriate" for a public theater?
As reported by Howard Sherman of the Arts Integrity Initiative, local businessman Brad Dinkins will argue that two city-owned arts venues are presenting 'questionable' material next month: a burlesque show at the Marion Theatre and a performance of the Vagina Monologues at the Reilly Arts Center.
The vagina is out of the bottle and she won’t be put back in!
In deepest solidarity,
Dinkins argues that the shows violate the city's lease agreement with both tenants, which stipulates that "Tenant shall not use the Building (by, without limitation, presenting performances or other entertainment), or permit others to use the Building, in a manner that City, in its reasonable discretion, deems inappropriate or objectionable."
Dinkins is clearly misunderstanding the lease – which refers to manner of use, not the content of the performances themselves. It doesn't take a First Amendment lawyer to see the potential problems with a government agency restricting artistic expression on the grounds that somebody claims that it presents "inappropriate or objectionable" ideas. And as Sherman points out, Ocala is no stranger to the material in both performances– he writes that "this year’s presentation of The Vagina Monologues would be the show’s fourth run in the city," and the burlesque shows "have been taking place at the Marion about three times a year for the past couple of years."
Dinkins will be appearing with several others who will evidently lend their support to his case. But they're not the only ones weighing in. An online petition ("Stand up for Ocala's artistic community and our city's female performers!") has attracted thousands of signatures, and a "peaceful and classy counter protest" is being planned before the council meeting.
What will happen at the meeting is anyone's guess, of course, but Howard Sherman got it right when he commented that he hopes the council grants Dinkins the time to make his case, and then does nothing:
Then I hope the city council will thank all parties and simply go on with the essential business of running Ocala without voicing any opinion one way or another or calling for any vote. They will have already spent far too much time on a retrograde, reactionary effort to deny members of the community access to legal and creative pursuits that they’ve previously enjoyed. I hope the council won’t use some wholly subjective, undefinable words in two lease agreements to dignify a call for censorship.
UPDATE: The Ocala City Council met and listened to Dinkins' complaint on March 1. They also heard from citiizens who voiced their support for free expression. As the local Ocala Star Banner newspaper editorialized, the council "appropriately took no action" on the matter. From the sound of it, everyone had a chance to speak their minds:
We applaud Hilty and his colleagues on the City Council for allowing the debate to be heard in full and for showing responsible restraint from overstepping its bounds. We also applaud those who joined the debate — both “pro” and “anti” sides — for allowing a serious disagreement to be discussed in a respectful, civil manner.