The Flagler County school district’s decision to cancel a student production of To Kill a Mockingbird is no longer a local matter.
Late today, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Dramatists Guild of America, both New York-based, sent a strongly-worded letter to Superintendent Janet Valentine expressing concern over the cancellation and urging her to “review that decision and allow students to go ahead with the production.” The organizations drafted the letter knowing that a district-based appeals committee was hearing the case on Monday. It sent copies of the letter to each member of that committee after learning the members’ identity on FlaglerLive, the coalition’s program director, Svetlana Mintcheva, said. Copies also went to every school board member and to Jacob Oliva, the Flagler Palm Coast High School principal who initiated the cancellation.
- The Coalition’s Letter to Janet Valentine
- Mockingbird Appeals Committee’s Challenge: Loyalty to “Protocol” vs. Free Expression
- Conklin Triggers Mockingbird Appeals Committee, Likely Enabling Play’s Revival
- Citing Vague Fears, School District Suppresses Stage Production of To Kill a Mockingbird
- Before School Censors: When Mockingbird‘s Harper Lee Spoke Proudly of Flagler County
“If placing students in the midst of a ‘highly charged debate’ was indeed the school principal’s concern,” read the letter, signed by Mintcheva and Ralph Sevush, the guild’s executive director, “it is now clear that the cancellation of To Kill a Mockingbird has placed them in a far worse controversy. Whereas going ahead with the production would have created a teachable moment by asking how art can deal with the darker sides of history, now the issue is whether we need censorship to ‘protect’ the community from the painful truths of history.” (Read the full letter.)
Citing Atticus Finch, the hero of Mockingbird (“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible”), the coalition doesn’t quite buy the district’s claim that the cancellation was prompted by the desire to protect students, an impulse that ends up keeping students ignorant instead.
The coalition is made up of 50 national organizations that represent artistic, educational, religious and labor groups, including the Actors’ Equity Association, the Screen Actors Guild, the Actors Guild Foundation, the American Association of University Women, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the American Library Association, the Modern Language Association, and many others.
The Dramatists Guild has a membership of 6,000. “We’re members of the national coalition against censorship,” Sevush told FlaglerLive in an interview Friday evening. “Their offices alerted us to this activity, and we discussed it at our executive committee meeting and decided to take some action. It isn’t the first time we’ve done it and it certainly won’t be the last, unfortunately.” The guild gets involved when the integrity of the work and purpose it represents, directly or indirectly, is threatened.
“Most of the leading playwrights and musical theater writers belong to the organization,” Sevush said. “We are basically concerned with the condition of their work being produced. These issues pop up, it’s not how much leverage do we have, it’s how seriously do schools take the views of our members, like Edward Albee, Stephen Schwarts, Stephen Sondheim. If they don’t take those people seriously, then they don’t. The guild has been around since 1926 in one way or another and it’s continued to be the voice of American playwrights. This is their voice: come on guys, let’s be serious here.”
Sondheim has won Tony and Grammy awards, a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award. Albee won three Pulitzer prizes, two Tony awards and the National medal of Arts. Both, along with the rest of the membership, will be reading about Flagler’s Mockingbird controversy through the guild’s magazine and website. (The guild’s past presidents or members have included Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams.)
Reflecting similar arguments made locally, both Sevush and Mintcheva recognized that, as with other plays and other words, nigger can be offensive, but stressed context and education. “What most of these acts of censorship lack is the context,” Sevush said. “Words only have meaning in context, otherwise they’re just an abstraction, and this is school is supposed to be about giving children, young people, context of the information they’re getting. Information without context is not education. It’s training. Children are there to be educated, not trained. They’re not dogs.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship deals with matters similar to Flagler County’s cancellation, or challenged books and materials, regularly. Mockingbird frequently makes the list of challenged material, as is Beloved, the Toni Morison novel, and works with sexual themes. The coalition helps local communities respond to the challenges, through education, First Amendment awareness, talking points and the like. Ultimately, it’s always a community decision. In Flagler’s case, Mintcheva said, it seemed relatively clear that the community is not where the district is—that the district’s decision to cancel the play is at odds with more open-minded community standards.
“It seems that that was a very hastily made decision, and partially it was based on the low opinion of the maturity of the community,” Mintcheva said. “It’s possible for school officials to make errors because there’s so many pressures on them, but it’s also possible for them to admit their errors and correct them. At this point they’re sending the educationally wrong message, that when you have sensitive material, what you should do is suppress it.” Mintcheva adds that, as in other communities, there’s also the risk of personalities and protocol getting in the way—“in other words, individual vanity does not trump educational consideration.”
Beyond the immediate decision over Mockingbird, what’s at stake in the district committee’s recommendation—and, ultimately, the superintendent’s decision—is the tone that will be set. Will the controversy over Mockingbird chill daring or experimentation and result in tamer choices (which is the usual fare of high school drama departments anyway), or will the district send the message that its pledge to diversity and open minds goes beyond bromides?
The coalition’s letter touches on those questions, with Mockingbird’s fate as setting the stage for what’s to come next. “We urge you to encourage student creativity and civic engagement, and to teach students the skills to discuss opposing views respectfully,” the letter concludes. “We urge you to allow the students to perform the play.”