The ACLU of Wisconsin today filed a lawsuit in federal court in Milwaukee charging that the Milwaukee Police Department violated the First Amendment by shutting down “Naked Boys Singing,” a musical play with gay themes that has been produced around the country.
The case seeks damages to compensate the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center, which staged the production in Milwaukee, for losses it suffered when the police shut down the play in 2005. City officials told the Center it needed a theater license and police officers threatened that people would be ticketed or arrested if the production went on. The ACLU charges that the theater licensing ordinance is unconstitutional, because it allows authorities to suppress free speech by withholding a license indefinitely, and that the police were illegally acting to suppress the play because they disapproved of its content.
Paul Masterson, the Executive Director of the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center, said the group was suing to vindicate the rights of gay and lesbian artists to present theatrical works that express and celebrate gay identity.
“Naked Boys Singing is mostly a light-hearted look at a part of the gay experience in America,” Masterson said. “It may not be for everyone, but good theater sometimes challenges convention. And all kinds of audiences have enjoyed the humor and the poignancy of the songs and the situations in the play.”
ACLU cooperating counsel Steve Porter and Jeff Scott Olson of Madison, Wisconsin filed the lawsuit on behalf of MGAC. Porter said the case shows why licensing of plays and other art is dangerous.
“When a theater director or other performer has to get a license before expressing herself," said Porter, "it’s too easy for the authorities to just delay giving the permit to performances they don’t like. In this case, the cast and crew were gearing up for a show when the police first brought up the need for a license, even though MGAC – and other nonprofit theaters – had done other shows without licenses for years. The only difference is those shows didn’t have such provocative titles, so you have to suspect that disapproval of the content is what made the police act in this case.”