Updated 5/2/2022— Additional performances of “Be More Chill” have been rescheduled.
Originally published 4/27/2022— The National Coalition Against Censorship has written to the trustees of Turlock Unified School District in Turlock, California, following reports that the district has canceled performances of Turlock High School’s spring musical, “Be More Chill,” by Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz. We have urged the district to reschedule performances of the musical, which is the Tony Award-winning story of a high school student’s efforts to fit in.
It appears that the remaining run of the play was canceled after one performance because of concerns that the content is not suitable for younger audience members.
The cancellation of those performances raises serious concerns about freedom of expression. Although the school certainly has an interest in ensuring that young children are not exposed to material which the school deems not age-appropriate, the Supreme Court made clear twenty-five years ago that a government policy that “effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another … is unacceptable if less restrictive alternatives would be at least as effective in achieving the legitimate purpose that the [policy] was enacted to serve.” Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997).
The district has an obvious alternative to cancellation: It can simply limit admission to persons above a particular age. That would achieve the district’s purpose, while preserving the right of older members of the community to see the play, as well as the right of Turlock High School students to present the play.
“Be More Chill” has been performed in many schools around the country. In 2019, South Eugene High School was invited to perform the play at the International Thespian Festival. The production of the play at Turlock High School seems to have been approved by the administration, and canceling it at such a late date on the basis of a few complaints sends a discouraging message to the students who have worked hard in rehearsing and producing the play and also casts doubt on the professionalism of school decisions that can be reversed so easily and at such great cost to the student body.
The Board of Trustees’ own policy states that the Board “believes that free inquiry and exchange of ideas are essential parts of a democratic education[,]” and that it “respects students’ rights to express ideas and opinions, take stands on issues, and support causes, even when such speech is controversial or unpopular.” NCAC asks that the trustees uphold those principles by rescheduling the canceled performances of “Be More Chill.”