Nevada School Attacks Profane Speech in Poem

Nevada School Attacks “Profane” Speech in Poem

UPDATE:

April 22nd, 2006: after winning a restraining order in federal court — so that administrators at Coral Academy of Science could not prevent him from reciting the poem of his choice — Jacob Behymer-Smith won 2nd place in the Nevada state finals of the “Poetry Out Loud” contest with his recitation of W.H. Auden’s “The More Loving One.” His performance wins the school a $1000 prize to support literary programs. For details and commentary, visit the Nevada State Arts Council website or local blog Reno & its Discontents.

April 11, 2006: Coral Academy of Science student Jacob Behymer-Smith won the district “Poetry Out Loud” competition (a national recitation contest co-sponsered by the Poetry Foundation
and the National Endowment of the Arts) with his recitation of W.H. Auden’s "The More Loving One." As he prepares to compete in the state finals on April 22nd, the school administration has sought to keep Behymer-Smith from reading that poem, citing concerns that it contains "profane" language (click here for the text of the poem). Below is NCAC’s statement to the school, with support from the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, PEN American Center, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

                                                                  

Board of Trustees and Administration
Coral Academy of Science
1350 East 9 th Street
Reno, NV 89512

Dear Trustees and Administrators,

It has been brought to our attention that Jacob Behymer-Smith, the Coral Academy student who won the district “Poetry Out Loud” recitation contest, has been instructed not to recite W.H. Auden’s “The More Loving One” in the state competition. We are writing to ask that you reconsider your decision and allow him   to compete as planned, and that you withdraw the formal reprimand you issued to the teachers who defended his right to do so.

This poem was authored by a writer central to the modern poetry canon, and therefore it is one that serious young adults, particularly college-bound students, should be ready to grapple with. Auden was a man of serious religious convictions, and the poem itself frames “profane” words in a subtle context of spiritual searching. This work was chosen from the same “Poetry Out Loud” anthology distributed to districts throughout the country, compiled by writers, educators, and editors for high school audiences.

Two students – Jacob Behymer-Smith and Taysha Taylor – distinguished themselves and Coral Academy by delivering award-winning recitations of this poem at the district competition on April 5 th , winning 1 st and 3 rd place, respectively. These performances illustrate exceptional talent and a deep understanding of the work itself. It would be an honor to your institution, rather than a potential blemish in the eyes of the public, for Jacob – whose winning recitation advances him to the next level of the national competition – to recite the work in the state finals. In contrast, to deny him the right to recite the poem he has carefully prepared is unreasonable and censorious.

It is well-recognized that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969).  Thus, in general, regulation of student expression is constitutional only when the speech would "substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students." Id., at 509.  Further, regulation of student speech “in school-sponsored expressive activities” is only permitted if it is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”  Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier , 484 U.S. 260, 283 (1988).

The pedagogical value of Auden’s poetry is plainly apparent. The use of “profane” language does not detract from this value, or that of any literature; in fact,   the “no profanity” rule, if applied consistently, would place off-limits almost all 2oth Century American fiction.  With all due respect to the school’s stated concern about “modeling,” that goal cannot constitutionally take precedence over the legitimate educational needs of students.  The school can choose to prohibit “inappropriate” speech – if properly defined – in the school halls, but it cannot deny students the opportunity to study material such as Auden’s poetry or to participate unencumbered in important educational opportunities, such as the poetry contest.

Not only does this new proscription on “profanity” violate the First Amendment, the manner of application of the “rule” is also suspect on due process grounds.  Having reviewed your student handbook and personnel policy, we can find no reference barring “profane” speech. The school provided no advance notice that such a policy existed or that behavioral rules and norms might be applied to academic exercises such as the poetry contest.  The retroactive application of a new standard, even if otherwise justifiable, unconstitutionally infringes on the legitimate expectations of students and teachers.

Dean Garlock’s email of March 17 th does just this, by accusing the English Department faculty of violating an unwritten school policy, telling them, “…[We] are only presenting pristine language to our students in the hope that that is what they gravitate to.” Apart from the legal ramifications of such a restriction, consider the following: students are exposed to slang and profanity on television, on the internet, even in the cafeteria, and cannot be completely shielded. What will better prepare them, as you say, to “gravitate” toward proper conduct: teaching them to make choices for themselves, or censoring them?

We urge you to allow Jacob to recite “The More Loving One” in the state finals, to rescind the reprimands issued to Coral Academy’s English faculty, and to adopt a formal policy which clarifies the free speech rights of students and faculty. If individual objections are allowed to derail academic and creative endeavors, a foreboding picture emerges of a school in which very little is recognized as acceptable discourse, and everyone holds his or her tongue. By articulating a policy that respects the First Amendment and academic freedom, you will affirm Coral Academy’s commitment to high quality education, which is founded in free expression.

Thank you for your time. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any questions.

Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan, President
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

Larry Siems, Director, Freedom to Write Program
PEN American Center

Kent Williamson
National Council of Teachers of English

cc:            

Coral Academy English Department Faculty
Diane Vaillancourt

The More Loving One
W. H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

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