UPDATE: Teacher Jennie Brown who wrote and directed the censored play Higher Ground is currently "under investigation".
Below is a letter NCAC wrote to the Sherwood School Board asking them to allow the play to be performed at Sherwood Middle School and to look into the investigatoin of Jennie Brown to ensure that everyone’s First Amendment rights are respected.
Members of the Sherwood School Board
Sherwood School District
23295 SW Main St.
Sherwood, Oregon 97140
March 18, 2008
Dear Members of the Sherwood School Board:
We are deeply concerned about the recent decision to cancel the Sherwood Middle School performance of Higher Ground. Although the principal has stated she cancelled the performance because she believed its “content exceeds the maturity of many of Sherwood Middle School students,” we understand that questions about the play arose only after a few parents complained about its homosexual content, and that the teacher was instructed to re-write the play to omit this material. In our view, this is precisely the kind of censorship that the First Amendment prohibits.
Equally troubling are reports that the teacher, Jennie Brown, who wrote Higher Ground, is now under investigation. The investigation sends a chilling message to teachers that the district will not tolerate anything that anyone might find objectionable. This not only undermines education, but violates basic constitutional principles.
School officials are bound by constitutional considerations, including a duty not to discriminate against unpopular or controversial ideas. As the Supreme Court has observed on many occasions, “public educators must accommodate some student expression even if it offends them or offers views or values that contradict those the school wishes to inculcate” (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 1989). While school officials have considerable discretion in controlling school-sponsored activity, there are limits when it comes to suppressing non-disruptive expression, especially if it addresses political or social concerns (Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 1969; Morse v. Frederick, 2007).
Higher Ground addresses many issues of great relevance to middle school students: bullying, cliques, stereotyping, prejudice, body-image, self-esteem and more. It offers themes of hope and strength, teaches students to see beyond superficial differences, and encourages them to stand up for their friends and themselves. Exploring these themes through theater provides students with an engaging, educational experience. By studying and portraying characters, students learn to explore and embody perspectives and experiences outside of their own. Already, teachers around the country have read Ms. Brown’s play and asked for her permission to perform it in their schools. Clearly, they feel it will resonate with students and prove to be a strong educational tool.
No student was required to participate in the play, or to see it. Any parent concerned about the play’s content could simply have kept his or her child out of the production and the audience. Instead they pressed for cancellation, so that no child could participate in or see the play. Indeed, not all parents object to the play, and those who do have no right to impose their views on others or to demand that this production reflect their personal preferences.
We urge you to review the situation and ensure that everyone’s First Amendment rights are respected by encouraging student creativity and teaching students the skills to discuss sensitive issues respectfully. These critical educational goals – the goals that inspire the First Amendment – cannot be accomplished by demanding that the play be altered and that teachers censor themselves to avoid important topics which students regularly confront. We urge you to review the way that Ms. Brown has been treated and to allow Higher Ground to be performed at Sherwood and un-edited by the administration.
If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to call us at (212) 807-6222.
National Coalition Against Censorship
READ THE PLAY: Higher Ground by Jennie Brown: What do you think?