Issue 64, Winter 1996
High school teacher Cissy Lacks was awarded $750,000 by a federal court in a case against a suburban St. Louis school district. Lacks was fired by the Ferguson-Florissant Schools for failing to censor her 11th grade students’ creative expression as part of a creative writing assignment in which she asked them to write as they speak. (A federal judge reinstated Lacks in August.)
Lacks — with 25 years of teaching experience — once won an award as one of the nation’s best teachers. She received $25,000 as the recipient of the 1996 PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award for "her courage in defending her young writers’ right to self-expression at great risk to herself."
Lacks introduced the uses and techniques of dramatic dialogue through plays and films with African American themes. After her students read August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Fences, they wrote and performed their own short plays, which Lacks taped for the students to analyze and critique. Because the plays reflected the students’ own experiences and concerns, the situations and dialogue were raw and unsettling.
Jurors upheld Lacks’ claim that firing her for failure to ban vernacular expression served no legitimate academic purpose and that she was dismissed without reasonable notice.
The Lacks ruling is yet another in a growing series of court decisions that should convince school boards of the high price of censorship — not only to students educationally but to taxpayers as well.