School officials cut ‘White Rabbit’ from band list

Friday, October 16, 1998

High school band students in O'Fallon, Mo., decided yesterday to challenge a school superintendent's ban on the performance of a popular 1960s song about drugs.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Fort Zumwalt North High School students plan to seek an injunction against the superintendent and the school board to block the order prohibiting the band from playing an instrumental version of “White Rabbit.” The Jefferson Airplane song includes references to pills and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Superintendent Bernard DuBray said he banned the song “because of the message it sends. The groups that performed the song in the 1960s were primarily sending a drug message.”

He said the ban was about “what was proper and what was right.”

“We have a school district that has spent a lot of time trying to be drug free. While we aren't there 100 percent, we try not to present [a drug image],” DuBray said.

The 30-year-old song was part of the Panther Pride Marching Band's 1960s theme show, a program which included instrumental versions of “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon” by the Moody Blues and “Roundabout” by Yes.

Band parent Deanna Reinwald said that the 92-member band announced its fall program last May and immediately began practicing. Through the summer, the students attended band camp, held fund-raisers, built backdrops and continued practicing their new program.

Reinwald said the band heard no complaints about the program even after the band performed parts of the program at a barbecue and at a football game last month. But on Sept. 14, the superintendent told band director Rob Babel of his decision to ban the song.

More than 60 students and parents pleaded with DuBray at a Fort Zumwalt Board of Education meeting last month to restore the song to the program, but he declined.

“Four months after [the song program] was announced, after thousands of hours, thousands of dollars and a lot of sweat had been invested, it was banned for lyrics that aren't even sung,” Reinwald said.

“Our director is young, only 27 or 28, so he was not aware of the drug-related lyrics of the song,” Reinwald said. “His musical selections were chosen from demo tapes of marching band music sent in to him by the sheet music companies. Naturally, there were no lyrics with the tape.”

After DuBray's decision, the band canceled a performance at its first marching festival.

DuBray said he apologized to the students for disrupting the band's program and festival schedule but said his decision was proper and legal. He said he doesn't think a lawsuit “is going anywhere.”

Nina Crowley, executive director of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, said efforts to restrict student expression run rampant in school districts across the nation. She said school officials usually justify such bans as a means to protect students. DuBray's decision, she said, was made because some people might be offended by the song.

“Neither excuse is acceptable,” Crowley said. “But it is a particularly egregious crime when a school system tries to place a prior restraint on thought.”

DuBray dismissed First Amendment free-speech concerns, saying that the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier allows him to restrict some student rights if they conflict with the educational process.

“It's a curriculum issue,” DuBray said about his decision to ban the band song. “They practice on school time, and their music is purchased by the school.”