Questions On School Theatre Censorship, For South Williamsport & Beyond

September 18th, 2014 § 1 comment

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 10.49.54 AMEven if I were to attend the Board of Education meeting of the South Williamsport Area School District in Pennsylvania this coming Monday, September 22, I couldn’t speak. That’s because the district only allows comment from residents and taxpayers, and I am neither. Even if I were permitted to speak, I very likely would only be permitted to make a statement, since many school boards allow public comments at meetings, but don’t necessarily engage in dialogue. I have no idea what the practice is in South Williamsport.

I remain very concerned about the school’s decision to cancel the musical Spamalot due to, in the words of Principal Jesse Smith, “homosexual themes.” This is no longer an issue about play choice, but about institutional bias. As a result, I have a lot of questions I wish I could ask, both at that meeting and elsewhere in South Williamsport, about all that has transpired over this clear effort to suppress any portrayal of gay life at the Junior/Senior High School, even in a piece as non-doctrinaire as a Monty Python musical.

So all I can do I toss my questions out into the universe, hoping that perhaps a resident or taxpayer might ask them, or speak to them, before Monday night, during the Board of Education meeting itself, and afterwards.

1. Principal Jesse Smith: when this story was first reported, a quote was falsely attributed to you, which has rightly been corrected and/or excised. In school e-mails, you expressed concern that this falsely attributed statement made you look like a bigot. However, the central issue remains – you don’t think it appropriate for homosexual characters or relationships to appear in a school show. This leads me to ask an obvious question: do you personally support or oppose equal rights for all people – gay, straight, bisexual and transgender? Do you personally think the portrayal of gay characters in Spamalot is inappropriate in a school setting, or are you acceding to the opinions and wishes of those who do?

2. Superintendent Mark Stamm: internal e-mails from the school have you declaring that Mr. Smith’s original decision on this issue is “sound.” Therefore, it’s only natural to ask you the same question put to him: do you personally support or oppose equal rights for all – gay, straight, bisexual or transgender?

3. Board of Education chair John Engel: On July 3, regarding the initial assertions that Spamalot was canceled due to gay content, a story from PennLive/Patriot-News said, “Homosexuality did not enter into that decision, Engel said.” The released e-mails prove that homosexuality was the reason for the decision. So, were you given false information by school district staff that led you to make this incorrect statement, or were you attempting to obscure the facts? As an elected official, what is your position regarding the dissemination of incorrect information to the public by any member of the school staff or school board?

4. WNEP Television: You first reported the story of the cancelation of Spamalot and, regrettably, that story contained a noteworthy error which proved distracting. Several days later, you aired a second story about the community coming together. However, since then, you have not reported on the story at all, even after multiple sources revealed that indeed it was the show’s gay content that provoked censorship. Is this fulfilling your responsibility as a source of local news? Have you scared yourselves away from covering an important story?

5. You also wrote about the Spamalot controversy when it first broke in July, but have not written about it since the school e-mails were revealed. Why do you not consider those facts newsworthy, especially since they contradict material you previously reported?

6. The news staff of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette: Why did it take a blogger and a progressive advocacy organization to bring forward the truth of the reasons for Spamalot’s cancelation through Right-to-Know requests? Given the information you published originally, it was clear there were varying accounts, and there was an obvious way to clear things up. Why didn’t you do this on your own? Why, once the e-mails were revealed, did it take you another 10 days to report the story?

7. The editorial page staff of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette: Since your paper ultimately wrote about the release of e-mails which made clear that Spamalot was canceled due to its “homosexual themes,” and prior statements from school administrators had been designed to obscure that fact, you have not mentioned this issue at all – either with any letters to the editor or an editorial. In fact, you haven’t offered an editorial about this situation at all since the story first emerged in early July, even though you have managed 10 pieces relating to the Federal government, including terrorism and the IRS, among many others, in that time. Why haven’t you written a word about a case of anti-gay bias in your own backyard?

8. Superintendent Stamm: When you spoke to the Sun-Gazette about the released e-mails, you spoke about statements being taken out of context. However, as the Right-to-Know administrator for the district, you were personally responsible for redacting the context in the e-mails, presumably with advice of counsel. Is it reasonable to complain about lack of context that you blacked out? Also, you defended Mr. Smith’s signature on a check for the rights to Spamalot by saying the attached contract was folded. Is folded material a legitimate excuse for not understanding why disbursements are being made?

9. To the (claimed) South Williamsport area parent who contacted me via my website: You wrote, “I have a child that attends the So. Wmspst school district and would never want him exposed to that sexual sin. There are still parents and students and many members of our community who do not agree with homosexuality or gay marriage… We have freedom of speech also-I don’t want to see our innocent children exposed to that. They don’t need to grow up thinking that it’s normal. Some of us still have morals. Keep it out of South!” Your freedom of speech absolutely does guarantee you the right to express your opinions. However, a public school has the responsibility to prepare students for life and to teach them about the world beyond their local community. Do you believe that your disagreement with aspects of the world can dictate what students learn and perform?

10. All officials and residents in South Williamsport: national news reports on this issue have the potential to leave a lasting image of your town as one that does not believe in inclusion and equality. Will you make a public effort to assure members of the local, regional and national community that South Williamsport accepts, respects and welcomes all people as equals, without regard to gender, age, race, religion, disability or sexual orientation?

I realize that my questions go far beyond the scope of a Board of Education meeting. But that meeting is as good a reason and opportunity as any to start raising these questions, since they arose from a school issue. Now all I can do is hope that they get asked.



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