Censoring ‘Footloose’: dancing around the First Amendment

Sunday, December 7, 2003

Almost two decades after Kevin Bacon first danced across the movie screen in “Footloose,” a stage adaptation of the movie has ignited controversies that echo its plot.

“Footloose” was about a group of young people determined to challenge a small town’s ban on dancing. The film – packed with music by performers like Kenny Loggins and Bonnie Tyler – pitted one generation against the next, with the kids predictably winning a victory for free expression.

How ironic, then, that this story about kids expressing themselves has now come under fire from adults. A handful of four-letter words in the script have led to conflicts in high schools in Michigan and Georgia.

Early last month, Christopher Delgado, associate principal at Andover High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., attended a “Footloose” rehearsal and announced that a number of offensive words would have to be excised.

“He said he had a 6-year-old son he planned to bring to the show, and didn’t want him to hear any profanity from the stage,” a parent of one of the young actors told Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson.

School principal Heidi Kattula then jumped into the fray, saying that she and the play’s producers had worked out a compromise. Words like “horny,” “bitchin’” and “hell” would remain, but two other words – delicately described by the Free Press as an “anal aperture” and “a bull’s excrement” – would be censored.

The play went on as scheduled. There’s no word on whether the 6-year-old enjoyed it.

Contrast this heavy-handed treatment with what transpired after students at Marietta (Ga.) High School staged their own production of “Footloose” last spring.

School board member Troy Callihan never saw the play, but came to the board with a complaint from a parent. “If they do have a play with adult material or language, just notify parents before they walk in with small children,” Callihan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

School-board pressure led Marietta High School principal Gordon Pritz to announce that he would post content warnings at future student productions. Presumably, the policy will apply to all plays, not just “Footloose.” (“Romeo and Juliet” – Warning: underage sex and arcane language.)

Pritz took some heat from students for his decision, but his was by far the more sensible response to “Footloose.” It was also clearly the more constitutional.

In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled (in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier) that educators can exercise editorial control over the content of student newspapers and plays – but only for legitimate educational purposes.

This is by no means a blank check for educators. In a 1993 New Jersey case (Desilets ex rel. Desilets v. Clearview Regional Bd. of Educ.), for example, an appeals court ruled that it was unreasonable for a school principal to ban the publication of reviews of R-rated movies in a junior high school newspaper.

Just what was the educational value in banning a reference to an “anal aperture”? High school plays are intended as outlets for creativity and free expression for young adults, not entertainment for toddlers.

Principal Pritz’s solution may be a bit clumsy, but it effectively warns clueless audience members, preserves the integrity of the play and protects the free-speech rights of high school students.

We all learn about freedom in different ways. Sometimes we learn from textbooks; at other times from experience. At Andover High School, they’re teaching the wrong lessons.

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