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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Wilton High School student's free speech rights ripped to shreds

This is ridiculous. Make sure you're sitting before you read this.

Student productions at Wilton High School range from splashy musicals like last year’s “West Side Story,” performed in the state-of-the-art, $10 million auditorium, to weightier works like Arthur Miller’s “Crucible,” on stage last fall in the school’s smaller theater.

For the spring semester, students in the advanced theater class took on a bigger challenge: creating an original play about the war in Iraq. They compiled reflections of soldiers and others involved, including a heartbreaking letter from a 2005 Wilton High graduate killed in Iraq last September at age 19, and quickly found their largely sheltered lives somewhat transformed.

“In Wilton, most kids only care about Britney Spears shaving her head or Tyra Banks gaining weight,” said Devon Fontaine, 16, a cast member. “What we wanted was to show kids what was going on overseas.”

But even as 15 student actors were polishing the script and perfecting their accents for a planned April performance, the school principal last week canceled the play, titled “Voices in Conflict,” citing questions of political balance and context.

The principal, Timothy H. Canty, who has tangled with students before over free speech, said in an interview he was worried the play might hurt Wilton families “who had lost loved ones or who had individuals serving as we speak,” and that there was not enough classroom and rehearsal time to ensure it would provide “a legitimate instructional experience for our students.”

“It would be easy to look at this case on first glance and decide this is a question of censorship or academic freedom,” said Mr. Canty, who attended Wilton High himself in the 1970s and has been its principal for three years. “In some minds, I can see how they would react this way. But quite frankly, it’s a false argument.”

At least 10 students involved in the production, however, said that the principal had told them the material was too inflammatory, and that only someone who had actually served in the war could understand the experience. They said that Gabby Alessi-Friedlander, a Wilton junior whose brother is serving in Iraq, had complained about the play, and that the principal barred the class from performing it even after they changed the script to respond to concerns about balance.

“He told us the student body is unprepared to hear about the war from students, and we aren’t prepared to answer questions from the audience and it wasn’t our place to tell them what soldiers were thinking,” said Sarah Anderson, a 17-year-old senior who planned to play the role of a military policewoman.

Bonnie Dickinson, who has been teaching theater at the school for 13 years, said, “If I had just done ‘Grease,’ this would not be happening.”

Frustration over the inelegant finale has quickly spread across campus and through Wilton, and has led to protest online through Facebook and other Web sites.

“To me, it was outrageous,’’ said Jim Anderson, Sarah’s father. “Here these kids are really trying to make a meaningful effort to educate, to illuminate their fellow students, and the administration, of all people, is shutting them down.”
This isn't the first time this idiotic principal has trampled on the student's right for free speech.
The scrap over “Voices in Conflict” is the latest in a series of free-speech squabbles at Wilton High, a school of 1,250 students that is consistently one of Connecticut’s top performers and was the alma mater of Elizabeth Neuffer, the Boston Globe correspondent killed in Iraq in 2003.

The current issue of the student newspaper, The Forum, includes an article criticizing the administration for requiring that yearbook quotations come from well-known sources for fear of coded messages. After the Gay Straight Alliance wallpapered stairwells with posters a few years ago, the administration, citing public safety hazards, began insisting that all student posters be approved in advance.

Around the same time, the administration tried to ban bandanas because they could be associated with gangs, prompting hundreds of students to turn up wearing them until officials relented.

“Our school is all about censorship,” said James Presson, 16, a member of the “Voices of Conflict” cast. “People don’t talk about the things that matter.”