Canned “Spamalot”: School censors pull the curtain on “offensive” productions

The Tony Award-winning Monty Python musical, “Spamalot,” is two hours of goofy, over-the-top fun with an ending that, for a few fleeting seconds, includes the wedding of two men — the show’s theme song, “Find Your Grail,” momentarily becomes instead, “Find Your Male.”

That scene in an otherwise silly-but-inoffensive script was enough for the principal of a Central Pennsylvania high school to declare the production unsuitable for family audiences and ban it from the stage at South Williamsport Junior/Senior High.

The Educational Theatre Association keeps track of school censorship incidents, and reports that no theatrical work — not even Arthur Miller’s classic, “The Crucible” — is immune from the decency police.

As Casey McDermott explains in the cover story from the current SPLC Report magazine, student theatrical productions are a perennial source of conflict between artistically inclined students — for whom artistry means at times pushing the boundaries of audience comfort — and school authorities imposing a personal morality agenda or enforcing their perception of community standards.

Authors have adapted by buffing the roughest edges off plays such as “Rent,” creating “school editions” of the oft-censored work, which in unedited form contains strong profanity and sexual themes. But in one Trumbull, Conn., high school, even the watered-down version proved too strong for a delicate-eared principal, whose veto of the musical’s scholastic edition was reversed after national condemnation.

The authority to override students’ choice of artistic, musical or theatrical work derives from the Supreme Court’s 1988 pronouncement in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that schools could more freely control student speech when it’s uttered in a “curricular” context using a school-provided conduit. While Hazelwood involved a student newspaper, its impact has been felt far beyond the newsroom, from graduation speeches to art exhibits.

In one of the few First Amendment lawsuits involving student theatrical performances, a federal appeals court ruled in 1998 that the choice of a play is a “curricular” decision over which school administrators, not individual teachers, have sole authority. Thus, a North Carolina teacher disciplined over her selection of a play that included themes of homosexuality and unwed pregnancy could not challenge the school board’s decision as a violation of the First Amendment.

The case, Boring v. Buncombe County Board of Education, deeply split the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (7-6), provoking a strong dissenting opinion by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, who wrote:

By holding that public school administrators can constitutionally discipline a teacher for in-class speech without demonstrating, or even articulating, some legitimate pedagogical concern related to that discipline, the majority extinguishes First Amendment rights in an arena where the Supreme Court has directed they should be brought ‘vividly into operation.’

As pointed out by Judge Motz, it does not appear that the slender seven-judge majority found the teacher, Margaret Boring, to be entitled even to the rather minimal level of free-speech protection left standing after Hazelwood. Since her choice of curriculum was regarded as an official act in her employee capacity, the decision received no First Amendment protection at all. Consequently, if a school’s decision to censor a theatrical performance is to be challenged, the challenge must come from the students whose speech is silenced, not from their faculty adviser.

The SPLC’s “Cure Hazelwood” page gathers examples of the aggressive use of Hazelwood censorship authority to stifle discussion of sensitive subjects that have a legitimate place in the educational day. If your voice is silenced on the scholastic stage, make it heard as part of the Hazelwood reform campaign. As the students who triumphed over censorship in Trumbull can attest, speaking out and raising public awareness is a force as unstoppable as the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.