A “Laramie” lawsuit: Footing the bill for censorship

Here we go again: More trouble over a school play. Don’t these people ever learn? I mean the principals and school boards who do the censoring and always seem to do it so clumsily, as if critical thinking were anathema to education and free speech were a legislative inconvenience to be swatted away on a whim — usually the whim of a frightened administrator or a few right-wing parents determined to make everyone else line up with their rigid view of the world. Where do they think they are, Guantanamo Bay?

The play in question this time around, almost predictably, is The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman’s moving and mostly even-handed exploration of how the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998 affected the people in his town of Laramie, Wyoming. This one’s just too much for the great 16th century thinkers who seem to be running, and running roughshod over, our public schools. Controversy? Perish all thought.

As Melissa Navas reported this morning in The Oregonian, Portland actor and onetime teacher Wade Willis has sued the Beaverton School District for $125,000, claiming he was “harassed, intimidated and humiliated” for his attempt during the 2005-06 school year to bring The Laramie Project to the stage at Southridge High School, where he had been a music, drama and language arts teacher. Shattered by the experience, Willis quit a job that he presumably loved.

His lawyer argued, Navas reports, that “a wrongful discharge lawsuit can be filed when an employer ‘maintained specific working conditions so intolerable’ that a person would resign.” Navas also reports that Kaufman had given permission to take out the play’s profanities to make it appropriate for a school audience, and she points out that although the play is about a hate crime against a gay man, it’s not about sex.

I don’t know Wade Willis, but I’ve seen him many times on stage, and he’s always struck me as an actor who approaches his job in a totally professional manner. (Right now he’s on stage in Broadway Rose Theatre Company‘s critically hailed production of the musical Les Miserables.) The loss to the students who no longer get to learn from him is of course impossible to measure, but I imagine it is significant: Here is a man who understands music and theater from the inside out, deeply respects his craft, is exceptionally good at it, and was willing to pass that knowledge along. Further, he wasn’t afraid to confront his students with topics that demand critical thinking — and what greater skill can a school hope to impart to the children in its care?

What strikes one, in the end, is that this is a waste. A waste of a good teacher. A waste of a teachable moment. The negative lesson that inquiry is wrong and will be crushed. A waste, then, of the minds of an entire student body, which learns that if you want to get along, go along. See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil — and of course, if the subject makes anyone uncomfortable, it has to be evil. We’ve seen it recently, as Art Scatter has written, in Sherwood. And back in April our friends at the blog Portland Public Art discovered the ludicrous case of a high-school mural, a riff on Michelangelo’s famous version of God creating Adam, being chopped off at the point of Adam’s discreetly rendered nether regions. (This in Ashland, a city where public nudity is legally sanctioned on the downtown streets.)

I’ve been watching this sort of thing going on for a long, long time, and I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of it. The answer, though, isn’t to get fatigued. It’s to get angry. This nonsense is dangerous (I call it un-American, in a deep sense that I imagine is totally at odds with the censors’ views of anti-Americanism, because this country was built on free expression and unfettered inquiry), and it has to stop.

That’s why I hope Willis gets every penny of the $125,000 he’s seeking. Not because I want to see a financially strapped school district have to shell out a lot of money in a lawsuit: That’s another big part of the waste this incident has wrought. But if he wins, and the Beaverton district has to pay, maybe school administrators across the state will think twice or three times before they pull the plug on a project that might actually prompt their teach-to-the-test-dulled students to think for themselves. And I want future voters who’ve learned how to think.

Please, God and all school boards: Let them think.