The University of Southern California has been forced to open an investigation after discovering that the Church of Scientology may have forged a letter from one of its professors, begging Disney Corporation CEO Bob Iger to censor Leah Remini's Scientology expose series, "Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath."
The Church of Scientology has allegedly been recruiting a group of "interfaith leaders" to challenge the show, which the Church contends violates their right to free exercise of religion. The interfaith group, which includes members of the Scientology-aligned Los Angeles Faith Coalition of California, has held a number of press availabilities and protests in both Florida and California in an effort to put direct pressure on Disney to drop Remini's program.
In one recent incident, documented by journalist and Scientology critic Tony Ortega, a dozen or so members of the group gathered across the street from the entrance to Disney Studios and sang, "It's a Small World." The protest does not appear to have had the desired impact.
USC Fellow Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray — a longtime friend of the Church of Scientology — appears to be a key member of this "interfaith coalition," and, according to a Scientology press release issued recently, authored a very terse and demanding letter to Iger, on USC letterhead, about Remini's program, alleging that Disney is "complicit" in "violence" that has come about as a result of Remini's investigations, and accusing Disney of "inciting hatred" against religion.
The full text of the letter is available here on Ortega's website or through Scientology's press releases. Scientology reportedly presented the letter to someone at Disney during their "Small World" protest.
The letter contains no references or citations to substantiate Murray's claims.
In any situation, a sitting professor at an institution of higher learning calling for the abject censorship of a television program because it criticizes a public organization — even if that organization is, in fact, a religion — is a cause for concern. Dr. Murray appears, from the content of the letter to be doing just that: pressuring Disney into canceling a successful, Emmy-winning program that draws ratings to the company's A&E network because it happens to critique an organization with which he is affiliated.
But there's another, bigger problem: according to the University of Southern California, Dr. Murray didn't author the letter.
A concerned viewer of Remini's program contacted USC to ask them why they would allow a sitting fellow to call for the censorship of a television program shortly after Murray's letter went live, according to Ortega. That viewer received a surprising response from USC's VP of Marketing and Public Relations.
Dear Ms. Thompson,
I want to personally acknowledge your letter to President Austin, which she has read and shared with me. She has asked me to respond on her behalf.
We strive for accuracy and appropriateness in all of our university communications. Reverend Murray has stated that he was not the author of the letter that was addressed to Mr. Iger on a discontinued letterhead. We are currently looking into the misuse of the university’s trademarks.
Thank you for sharing your concern with us.
Vice President of Public Relations and Marketing
University of Southern California
USC notes that they are instituting an investigation to find out why Dr. Murray's letter appeared on USC letterhead, and, it seems, has already inquired into how the letter came to be and whether the Church of Scientology actually forged the letter from Dr. Murray, as the note from the administration implies.
USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture, which hosts Dr. Murray as a fellow, also put out its own statement, distancing itself — and Murray — from the original letter's contents (emphasis added):
The USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture and the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement have become aware of an effort to link the centers, its past programs and affiliates, to a campaign targeting A&E Networks programming. Rev. Murray and the centers have not and will not take a position on the network's programming.
The statement is signed by the Center's director.
The Church of Scientology has removed the letter from Dr. Murray on official USC letterhead and has replaced it with the same letter, this time on letterhead from the First AME Church in Los Angeles, where Murray formerly served as pastor. Scientology is still actively promoting the content of the letter (as is the LA Faith Coalition), despite USC's apparent belief that Murray is in no way involved with a campaign to force Disney to censor its own content.
The LA Faith Coalition posted a slightly different version of the letter with Murray's USC affiliations removed, on February 4, and referenced Murray's letter in a "follow up" social media plea to Iger.
The USC investigation is reportedly ongoing.