A federal district judge has denied a request by six Vermont students and their lawyer for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed rehearsals of Elizabeth Swados’s play, “Runaways,” to continue in an East Montpelier high school despite school-board opposition.
Judge Albert Coffin ruled last week against the students from Union District 32 in a suit they had filed against the school board. The students maintain that prohibition of the school play is a violation of their First Amendment rights. Their lawyer, Alan Rosenfeld, has said that he would meet with the board to negotiate a settlement.
The play, which is said to offer a stark picture of prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction, and violence in an urban setting, is inappropriate for rural East Montpelier and for the age groups it would reach, according to Leslie Pratt, the lawyer for the school board.
Mr. Pratt said he believes precedents set by the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts “give school boards what verges on absolute discretion in such matters when they are matters of curriculum.” The Swados play, he maintains, “is clearly a part of the curriculum.” Students receive credit for participating in the production and rehearse both during and after school hours, he said.
But Mr. Rosenfeld, while agreeing that the play is “not a happy story,” said he strongly believes that curricular materials are not immune from First Amendment protection. In addition, he maintains, the board’s attempt to ban its production is “hypocritical” since school officials permit the play to be used in classes.
In a situation in which classroom use of theatrical material is at issue, an earth-sciences teacher at Oakville (Mo.) Junior High School has asked an arbitration group to meet with the Mehlville School District over its refusal to allow him to show his students the movie, “Inherit the Wind.” The 1960 film is a fictional account of the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes, a Tennessee school teacher who attempted to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution.
James Dickerson, who says he was denied permission to show the film to 300 students in his 8th-grade class in November 1982, complained to the Mehlville Community Teachers Association, which filed for arbitration. The American Arbitration Association is expected to issue an advisory opinion on the dispute next month.
District officials are not required to abide by the association’s decision. If they do not, the teachers’ association might sue to force a settlement, according to a spokesman for the arbitration group.
Both Ronald Paul, principal of Oakville Junior High School, and Thomas L. Blades, superintendent of Mehlville School District, objected to the film on the grounds that it is historically inaccurate, makes light of religion, and is not appropriate for an earth-sciences class, Mr. Dickerson said.
But Mr. Dickerson disagrees: “I think the movie is pertinent,” he said. “I’ve had my kids see it for the last 10 or 12 years when it’s on television ... I thought it would be a good addition to the curriculum.”
Challenges to films presented in educational institutions are on the rise, according to Nadine Covert, executive director of the Educational Film Library Association. “We’ve observed that the number of challenges has increased in the last five or six years,” she said. Among the topics that are most often censored, Ms. Covert said, are sex education and gun control. “And anything dealing with evolution is still a sensitive topic.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 1984 edition of Education Week as Vermont Judge Blocks Play Rehearsals; Teacher Denied Use of Film in Missouri