Censorship… Alive and Well in Connecticut
March 30, 2007
Though I don’t generally write posts here based on articles coming from the Mainstream media, for obvious reasons. I’m going to make an exception in this case. This story is about the censorship of the creative process of our children. Censorship, because some students decided that they wanted to write a play, based on the words of soldiers who have served in Iraq, to help them and their audience better understand what the world is like, from the view of a soldier. This is a story that deserves to be told. I would be extremely interested in what everyone else thinks about this.
The students in the advanced theater class at Wilton High School in Connecticut, decided that this Spring they wanted to do something different for their Spring play, instead of the typical “Westside Story”. They created their own original play about the War in Iraq, based on letters from the men and women serving in Iraq.
â€œIn Wilton, most kids only care about Britney Spears shaving her head or Tyra Banks gaining weight,â€ said Devon Fontaine, 16, a cast member. â€œWhat we wanted was to show kids what was going on overseas.â€
But, as the students were perfecting their lines and preparing for the play, they ran into a snag that they didn’t expect. Last week, their High School Principal, cancelled the play, titled “Voices In Conflict,” which had been scheduled for an April performance.
The principal, Timothy H. Canty, who has tangled with students before over free speech, said in an interview he was worried the play might hurt Wilton families â€œwho had lost loved ones or who had individuals serving as we speak,â€ and that there was not enough classroom and rehearsal time to ensure it would provide â€œa legitimate instructional experience for our students.â€
â€œIt would be easy to look at this case on first glance and decide this is a question of censorship or academic freedom,â€ said Mr. Canty, who attended Wilton High himself in the 1970s and has been its principal for three years. â€œIn some minds, I can see how they would react this way. But quite frankly, itâ€™s a false argument.â€
10 of the students directly involved in the production said that the principal had told them that the material was ‘too inflamatory’ and told them that only someone who had served in Iraq could understand what it was like. According to the students, one of their fellow students, who has a brother serving in Iraq, complained about the play. They said the principal cancelled the play, even after they had taken the time to change the script in response to concerns about balance.
â€œHe told us the student body is unprepared to hear about the war from students, and we arenâ€™t prepared to answer questions from the audience and it wasnâ€™t our place to tell them what soldiers were thinking,â€ said Sarah Anderson, a 17-year-old senior who planned to play the role of a military policewoman.
Bonnie Dickinson, who has been teaching theater at the school for 13 years, said, â€œIf I had just done â€˜Grease,â€™ this would not be happening.â€
The students are understandably frustrated and angry about what has transpired and that frustration quickly spread across the school campus. That in turn led to the students protesting in online forums.
â€œTo me, it was outrageous,â€™â€™ said Jim Anderson, Sarahâ€™s father. â€œHere these kids are really trying to make a meaningful effort to educate, to illuminate their fellow students, and the administration, of all people, is shutting them down.â€
This is not the first time that students have had disagreements with the administration at Wilton High School. The school is consistently one of the top performers in the State of Connecticut and the alma mater of Boston Globe correspondant, Elizabeth Neuffer, who was killed in Iraq in 2003.
In the most current issue of the school’s newspaper, there is an article criticizing the administration for requiring that any quotes listed in the school’s yearbook must be from famous or well-known sources. A few years ago, the school deemed that all posters be approved in advance, due to the Gay Straight Alliance posting posters in the stairwells.
â€œOur school is all about censorship,â€ said James Presson, 16, a member of the â€œVoices of Conflictâ€ cast. â€œPeople donâ€™t talk about the things that matter.â€
Ms. Dickenson said that she had started the spring semester with asking the students to create a play about Iraq and that initially she had the principal’s blessing to do so. The idea behind the play was to portray people very close in age to the students, who were experiencing very different things in their daily lives and to give the students to chance to ’stand in the shoes’ of those people during their performance in front of an audience.
The dialog was taken from a book that Ms. Dickenson had read, as well as weblogs, a documentary and other sources.
After concern that the script might be considered ‘anti-war’ the script was reworked to give a more balanced view of the war. When the script was reworked, additional characters were added, portraying some who had been injured in Iraq.
Seven characters were added, including Maj. Tammy Duckworth of the National Guard, a helicopter pilot who lost both legs and returned from the war to run for Congress last fall. The second version gives First Lt. Melissa Stockwell, who lost her left leg from the knee down, a new closing line: â€œBut Iâ€™d go back. I wouldnâ€™t want to go back, but I would go.â€
According to the students, on March 13, Mr. Canty met with them and informed them that the play was not going to happen, no matter what. Afterwards, messages started appearing online. The students toyed with the idea of performing the play outside of the school, possibly outdoors or even at the Wilton Presbyterian Church.
â€œI would want to read the script before having it performed here, but from what I understand from the students who wrote it, they didnâ€™t have a political agenda,â€ said the Rev. Jane Field, the churchâ€™s youth minister.
Though Mr. Canty denies telling the students they could not perform the play outside of the school, Ms. Dickenson remembers a different conversation.
Ms. Dickinson said he told her â€œwe may not do the play outside of the four walls of the classroom,â€ adding, â€œI canâ€™t have anything to do with it because weâ€™re not allowed to perform the play and I have to stand behind my building principal.â€
Parents critical of the decision say that the decision is out of character for the school, which is one of the things that attracted them to Wilton, an upper-class town of about 18,000 people, about an hour from Manhattan.
The sad thing was this thing was a missed opportunity for growth from a school that I really have tremendous regard for,â€ said Emmalisa Lesica, whose son was in the play. Given the age of the performers and their peers who might have seen the show, she noted, â€œif we ended up in a further state of war, wouldnâ€™t they be the next ones drafted or who choose to go to war? Why wouldnâ€™t you let them know what this is about?â€
The students have also created a website about their play Voices In Conflict