The Boston Phoenix
June 29 - July 6, 2000


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 Amendment rights.

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.

Just say no to West Side Story

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 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 make."

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.

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Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

1998 Muzzle Awards
1999 Muzzle Awards