The Muzzle Awards
The Phoenix's third annual dishonor roll
by Dan Kennedy
The chilling effects of political correctness and post-Columbine
jitters are at the root of this year's Muzzle Awards.
From Western Massachusetts, where a student production of West Side
Story was canceled lest delicate ethnic sensibilities be offended, to
Boston, where Judge Allan van Gestel banned the news media from reporting the
contents of a gay sex tape, officials put feel-good intentions ahead of First
From Maine, where Governor Angus King signed a law requiring that teachers be
fingerprinted, to Rhode Island, where a 12-year-old was suspended for belonging
to the laughably named "Scottish Mafia," repression was government's first
response to fears about school violence. As Benjamin Franklin memorably
observed, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary
safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
This year's round-up -- presented, as always, just before the Fourth of July,
when we celebrate the freedoms that haven't been taken away from us yet -- was
compiled by keeping a close eye on free-expression issues as they developed
throughout the year. Several "winners" were based on stories reported by the
Phoenix. Others were chosen by scanning newspaper and wire-service
databases. The criteria: the person or persons being singled out
must have committed their misdeeds in New England, and said misdeeds must have
taken place -- or come to fruition -- since July 4 of last year.
Hearing no objection from Judge van Gestel, let's roll the tape.
AMHERST REGIONAL HIGH SCHOOL
The most shameless violation of free speech (not to mention artistic license)
to hit New England during the past year broke out last November. Camille Sola,
a 17-year-old student at Amherst Regional High School who is partly of Puerto
Rican descent, presented officials with a petition signed by more than 150
students to protest a planned production of West Side Story. Sola
claimed the Leonard Bernstein classic was replete with negative ethnic
stereotypes. Science teacher Nick Shaw, whose wife is Puerto Rican and who
supported the protest, was quoted as saying, "The portrayal of Puerto Rican men
is frankly vile."
Just say no to West Side Story
Just about everyone agreed that liberal Amherst, a "nuclear free" town where
the flag of the United Nations flies over the common, had gone too far. The
protest drew snickers from network television and media from coast to coast --
and overseas, too, as even the London Guardian weighed in. Critics
charged that political correctness had run amok. People for the American Way
spoke out against the urge to censor. Locally, more than 100 people rallied for
free speech. The anti-West Side Story protest was so universally
lampooned and derided that it's easy to lose sight of the overriding point:
The censors won.
Director of secondary curriculum Wendy Kohler, who had supervised the spring
musicals for more than a decade, decided, in the end, to cave in to the
protesters and cancel West Side Story. "We didn't make the right
decision," she told the Boston Globe. "But it was the only one we could
Assessing blame in this instance is not easy. Sola and Shaw certainly can't be
faulted for their sincerely held beliefs, nor should they be excoriated for
exercising their own free-speech rights by speaking out. Kohler concluded,
rightly, that it was unfair to her aspiring actors and musicians to put them
through a political meat grinder. Principal Scott Goldman and superintendent
Gus Sayer were both quoted as saying all the right things -- namely, that it
would be wrong to cancel West Side Story, and that it presented an ideal
opportunity to discuss the negative stereotypes contained therein.
Collectively, though, all of these people ended up doing precisely the wrong
thing. Ultimately, the blame must rest with school officials. If Goldman,
Sayer, and school-committee members had issued a strong, unambivalent statement
in favor of free speech, Kohler might well have decided to stick to her
convictions. School officials had an opportunity to teach their students that
free speech is something worth fighting for.
Instead, these educators took the expedient way out.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.
1998 Muzzle Awards
1999 Muzzle Awards