Just-in-Time Victory for Bel Air High Drama Students

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
November 4, 2011 4:14 pm

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Harford Officials Reverse Censorship of Gay Scene

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BALTIMORE – Students with Bel Air High School Drama Company are celebrating a just-in-time victory after Harford County School officials decided to reverse course and end their censorship of a key scene in an upcoming play featuring two male friends who realize they have fallen in love. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU) raised First Amendment concerns this week in a letter to school officials asking them to reverse course and permit the play to go on as written.

Now, the students will prepare to perform the scene – called “They Fell” – in John Cariani’s critically acclaimed play, “Almost, Maine”, about falling in and out of love. The show is scheduled to open on November 10, 2011.

“We are heartened that school officials seem now to understand that fear of same-sex romance cannot justify censorship of this sweet and amusing scene,” said ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon. “We applaud the Bel Air students for taking a stand for the Constitution, and for providing their school community with an extraordinary teachable moment about free speech and respect for diversity.

The ACLU letter strongly argued that the school system’s censorship of the scene violated students’ First Amendment rights. The scene features two male characters who discover they are in love with each other and humorously share that discovery. It includes no references to sexual activity, nor do the characters engage in any sexually suggestive behavior in the scene. In fact, the scene is less suggestive than other scenes in the play that depict characters falling in love who kiss, remove clothing, then leave the stage in a suggestion of sexual activity. The students believe that the only reason “They Fell” was removed from BADC’s performance, while the rest of the play was left intact, is fear of the expression of same-sex love or gay identity.

“I’m glad the school board has come to a reasonable decision and that we get to perform the play as it was intended to be,” said Julia Streett, a student sound engineer with the Bel Air High School drama program and president of the school’s gay-straight alliance. “There didn’t need to be a big and crazy controversy, since portrayal of a same-sex relationship is a part of life and no one should be discriminated against just because of their sexual orientation.”

The full play has been staged at professional theatres, high schools and universities across the country and several productions have received regional accolades and awards, including from the Wall Street Journal. Go to YouTube to see video of a production of the scene at William Woods University:

“This victory belongs to the students of the Bel Air Drama Company, who quickly recognized the censorship as wrong and discriminatory and decided to fight back,” said Jessica Weber, pro bono counsel at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP. “Censoring the scene sent a message to students that being gay is something to be ashamed of and is best kept hidden. The students who challenged the censorship helped make their school a safer space for students of all sexual orientations.”

Said playwright, John Cariani: “’They Fell’ from ALMOST, MAINE is simply a story of new, sweet love. I told it as gently and respectfully as possible. I’m so sad that it created a stir. But so happy that the show will go on – without too much fuss. And I hope the folks on the Harford County School Board realize how impressive their students are. I am floored that members of the Bel Air High School Drama Club even thought to consider contacting the ACLU. They’re obviously getting a great education at Bel Air High School. Perhaps all this controversy – and the play, presented in its entirety – will remind kids who may be in doubt that…it gets better.”

Go to our website to read the ACLU letter to Harford County school officials:

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