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Bell v. U-Board of Education (32 )


School officials have the ability, when trying to keep a clean and productive learning environment, to stop certain sentiments, deemed inappropriate, from being spread throughout the student body.

The First Amendment guarantees U.S. residents freedom of speech, but it is one of the most difficult concepts to untangle. Freedom of speech covers so many different issues and has been the subject of so many different court cases that no one definition serves. No one phrase captures all of the meanings imbued to the guarantee of freedom of speech. Of course, there is one other issue: with so many people and so many freedoms, it is difficult to know where one person's freedom ends and another person's rights begins. An example of this is found in the case of Bell v. U-32 Board of Education.

Every spring, U-32 High School produced a musical. The audience, as it does in many school plays, consisted of other students, parents and other people from the community. The school acted as sponsor for these plays, providing funds, covering costs above ticket sales, providing rehearsal and performance locations, publicizing the plays, etc. Generally, the performers and stage crew were made up of students from seventh to twelfth grades. These students received grades as well as academic credits for participating in these productions because the play was considered part of the curriculum. Faculty staff members received extra compensation for directing the play and for general supervision of the production. Each January faculty members picked a play and the school board approved the production by appropriating funds.

Around 16 January 1984, the curriculum director spoke to the principal about the appropriateness of that year's choice. The chosen play for 1984 was called Runaways. The principal and superintendent of schools read the play, discussed it with various school administrators, faculty members who chose the play, the director and other involved faculty members. The final decision was that the school could not support this particular production. Their concerns revolved around the subject of the play and some of its content.

The play was about several runaway children who were reflecting about the home problems that drove them away from home and some of their problems out in the street. Much of the play contrasted nursery rhymes with relatively realistic portrayals of some issues faced by runaway children in rougher situations--things like drug abuse, alcohol, child prostitution, and rape. One especially graphic scene featured a murder and a rape. There was some profane language and some humor.

When the school's performing arts director appealed to the school board, they arranged for a special school board meeting three days later, on Monday, 23 January. This would allow time for a decision before auditions which were scheduled to begin on Tuesday, 24 January.

Notices for the meeting were posted in a store and the superintendent's office. Also, a local radio station broadcast public service announcements about the meeting. All of the school board members attended, except one. Several faculty members and students also attended so their views could be heard. However, without stating any reasons, the school board voted that the play not be produced. Soon after the meeting, the plaintiffs spoke with an attorney. The attorney asked the board to reconsider clarifying its reasons for its decision.

On 8 February 1984 the board sent a letter to the attorney that it would add a motion for reconsideration to the next regular meeting's agenda on 23 February. At the meeting, the board explained its decision. They said, essentially, that the play was inappropriate for students and the general community for various reasons. The board said they disapproved of the play because it involved sexual activity, child abuse, sexual violence, drug abuse and other such matters. The board did note that the play did not advocate or glamorize any of these things. Furthermore, the board pointed out, the play was available in the school library and was used as a textbook in a humanities class. The board thought that with all the available plays, this particular production did not represent a proper allocation of school funds. The same day as the meeting, the students filed their court action.

The district court ruled that the school board's decision about the play would hold because this did not violate the First Amendment rights of the students. It did not violate the First Amendment rights of the students because a school board can establish curricula so as to uphold and communicate community values as long as this did not deny access to ideas and opinions of others just because they disagreed with those ideas.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Bell v. U-Board of Education (32 ) - Significance, Performing Arts Censorship