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Maryland Board Says District Erred in Banning School Play

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The Maryland State Board of Education has ruled that the Anne Arundel County school board "erred" when it banned a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in the spring of 1980.

The controversy began when Arthur E. Smelkinson, then a drama teacher at Old Mill High School, decided to produce the play after the school's principal, Leroy G. Carter, refused to give him permission to produce Hair.

Mr. Carter, who reasoned that there is "enough of the seamy, violent, frightening, lewd, unhappy side of life portrayed on tv," would not allow the teacher to use One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest either.

Mr. Smelkinson then filed a series of appeals culminating in a review by a hearing examiner appointed by the state board of education. The examiner, who made his recommendations last spring, found Mr. Carter's criteria in banning the play "constitutionally suspect" and recommended that the state board overturn the principal's ban.

The board's opinion, issued late last month, is the result of consultations with the state's assistant attorney general. It offers seven reasons for upholding the hearing examiner's earlier judgment:

The play had been presented with no objections at Annapolis Senior High--another school in the county--in 1978.

Mr. Smelkinson's drama club had presented an excerpt of the play at the 1977 Anne Arundel County Drama Festival, which was attended by high-school students from the entire county.

Mr. Smelkinson was not informed that it was necessary to clear his choice of plays with school authorities.

Hair was rejected for the stated reason that it was not on the school district's approved reading list, but the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was on the list.

There was no approved reading list of plays.

There were no objective criteria to provide guidance for teachers in play selection.

There was no specific procedure by which Mr. Smelkinson could attain an "expeditious review" of his play choice or to appeal the principal's decision.

In its opinion the board also said: "We have eschewed basing our decision on the First Amendment to the Constitution, but rather have been guided by principles of sound education policy.... In doing so we have made it unnecessary to reach an ultimate answer to the First Amendment claims that have been raised. This avoidance of these difficult constitutional issues is appropriate, in our opinion, because the law in this sensitive area is in flux and not at all clear." Mr. Smelkinson, who is on leave from the school to finish work on a master of fine arts degree in directing at George Washington University, said he was "pleased, naturally" with the decision.

The Anne Arundel case may have a statewide impact on the selection of plays produced in the public schools, suggested Ellen M. Heller, counsel to the state department of education.

Ms. Heller, who advised the state board in preparing the opinion, noted that the opinion recommends that local boards adopt guidelines for future decisions about plays, including precise objective criteria for determining what is acceptable, time deadlines for review, and an outline for an appeals process should a play be found unacceptable.

"It is conceivable," she said, "that a county could develop these guidelines and find that a Cuckoo's Nest couldn't be done in the future."

The board avoided discussion of the constitutional issues in the case, she said, because a similar case (Pico v. Island Trees Union Free School District) is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"That deals with the banning of books from a library, but it certainly will speak to the standard of banning extra-curricular materials," she said.--A.H.

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