Yes, Sean Neely was Censored

“But we don’t have all the facts yet.” In nearly every conversation I had during Fringe about the Sean Neely incident, this was the inevitable conclusion. We often segued into debates about censorship in a more general or hypothetical sense, but as to whether Sean Neely’s eviction from the 2016 Minnesota Fringe qualified as censorship, most of us were withholding judgment “until the Fringe files its brief and we have both sides of the story.”

I was on board with this until I read the actual court documents.

It turns out, the Fringe has responded! Neely filed his initial complaint against the Fringe on March 16, 2016, and the Fringe filed its answer on April 19. The Fringe has not yet responded to a later Motion for Judgment, but that’s a separate step of the process; the answer is generally where the defendant lays out its defense and tells its side of the story. And the Fringe’s answer makes it abundantly clear that the festival is defending its right to censor.

  • In paragraph 2 of his complaint, Neely describes the Fringe lottery system and asserts, “The only condition placed on companies is that they must comport with all laws and Festival policies.” In its response, the Fringe denies this sentence, without adding any further clarification. Apparently there are some other arbitrary rules that are not written down but can be invoked at the festival’s discretion. That is censorship.
  • In Paragraph 18, the Fringe get more explicit about its right to censor:

    Defendant denies the allegations contained in paragraph 19 [sic] to the extent these allegations imply that Defendant’s use of the words “uncensored” or “uncurated” deprives Defendant of authority to not permit an applicant’s performance at the Festival.

    Please read that again. According to this document, being an uncensored and uncurated festival does not mean that the Fringe can’t reject performances. In which case, what, exactly, would a censored festival look like?

  • In case there was still some doubt, the Fringe says flat out in Paragraph 20: “Defendant admits that it reserves the right to prohibit applicants from Festival participation.”

But didn’t Sean Neely break the law?

My understanding is that police attended Neely’s 2015 performance and concluded no laws had been broken. The fact that the police felt compelled to investigate is not a valid reason to ban him — I could call the police on you right now, and unless I sound like a total nutcase, they would be obligated to at least investigate whatever I told them.

The Fringe’s response does not even mention this incident, and it cites no other law or policy violations. Not one.

At one point, the Fringe denies that it has failed to point to any laws and/or festival policies that Neely has broken or violated, but that’s all it does. Neely’s complaint says in paragraph 22, “Defendant and Mr. Larson have thus far refused to provide Mr. Neely with any specificity as to what exact laws and/or Festival policies they believe Mr. Neely has or will violate,” and the Fringe responds, “Defendant denies the allegations.” Full stop. There is no follow-up, no clarification, and still no specificity — most likely, because there is nothing to provide.

I know there are rumors going around about some “secret evidence” the Fringe has yet to produce, but I don’t buy it. The place for that evidence would be in this reply. That’s what the response is for — to explain to the judge why this lawsuit is bunk.

Meanwhile, the Fringe does not contest Neely’s version of events — merely his interpretation of them. And the executive director’s initial email justification for refusal was:

“Descriptions of sexual fantasies involving children (and anything else you have in mind relating to that) are, depending on the situation, either illegal or enough in a grey area that I can’t afford the lawyers and insurance to protect the festival from liability and keep you out of jail.”

In other words, Jeff Larson vetoed the show over a hypothetical, theoretical potential lawsuit — presumably without actually consulting any lawyers, or he would have said so in his email and then cited the law or policy he was concerned about.

Maybe you sympathize with Larson’s instinctive hesitation to permit a play about pedophilia, but how is that legally different from banning Lolita? It’s still censorship.

Worse, Sean Neely then offered to do a different show, and Larson refused to even negotiate. “It’s done, Sean,” he wrote. “There’s nothing more to discuss.” Jeff Larson was not going to allow Neely into the Fringe no matter what he said or did; Sean Neely himself was banned because of the content of his show from 2015.

To which some of you may reply, “Yeah, that show was gross! It made people really uncomfortable. Even if Neely didn’t technically break any laws or violate any policies, he’s a narcissist douchebag and he should be banned from the Fringe!”

Guess what: that’s censorship! To censor is to remove or suppress things that are unacceptable to a particular person or group of people. If you are only against censoring things that are acceptable, then you are not against censorship; you simply have opinions about which things should be censored.

Do we want a censored Fringe? That’s a separate conversation, but as it stands, our festival does advertise itself as “uncensored” — and in this case, it clearly failed to live up to that promise.