ACLU of Massachusetts Condemns Censorship of "Bowling for Columbine" at Local High School

April 7, 2003 12:00 am

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BOSTON - Saying that administrators at a local high school may have violated the First Amendment rights of an English teacher, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts today condemned a recent decision by the school's principal to prevent the teacher from showing students the award-winning film, "Bowling for Columbine," because it allegedly contained anti-war messages.

"The use of this film was an appropriate teaching tool that had been approved by the head of the English Department," said Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. "For an administrator to censor this film simply because of the views expressed is a terrible example of how not to educate America's children, and this action may well violate the First Amendment."

Wunsch said that the students involved are 17- and 18-year-olds who attend Lynn English High School -- a factor that supports the teacher's right to show the film. Courts have ruled in other cases that limits on teacher speech in the classroom must be "reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical concern" which includes considering things like the age and sophistication of students; relationship between teaching method and valid educational objectives, and context and manner of presentation.

The ACLU contends that the censorship of an "anti-war" point of view was not reasonable. The students were among the oldest in the school; the use of the film was relevant to the course they were taking and students are being exposed daily to pro-war and anti-war messages. According to the ACLU, it is entirely unreasonable in this context to say that the film could not be used because of its "anti-war views." No reasonable pedagogical purpose supports this censorship for students who can vote or serve in the armed forces very soon, the ACLU said.

"If the principal believes that anti-war views cannot be expressed at this time in the context of a class discussion, then students are not being properly taught," said John Reinstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "What will come next? Think of all the famous literature that could be viewed as expressing anti-war messages."

Reinstein suggested that if one were to follow the principal's logic, books such as All Quiet on the Western Front, Red Badge of Courage, Slaughterhouse Five, Johnny Got His Gun, or Catch 22 could be banned from high schools. "Will teachers be prohibited from having students read Carl Sandburg's poem, Grass, or seeing Picasso's painting Guernica? Grappling with controversial issues is what education in a democracy should be about, not banning points of view," he said.

The ACLU of Massachusetts recommends that, instead of censoring the views in the film, the principal should work with teachers in the English department to bring in materials that express a variety of viewpoints and are pedagogically appropriate.

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