The Post-Dispatch Missed the Chance to Defend Free Speech

By Pollack, Joe | St. Louis Journalism Review, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Post-Dispatch Missed the Chance to Defend Free Speech


Pollack, Joe, St. Louis Journalism Review


The irony is not only inescapable, but is so strong it's almost overpowering. Sixty years ago (March 5, 1946, to be exact), Winston Churchill gave his famous "Iron Curtain" speech in little Fulton, Mo., on the campus of Westminster College. He spoke of the coming division of the post-war world into two armed camps, the Anglo-American camp and the Russian camp.

So Churchill's courageous oratory is remembered when Mark Enderle, superintendent of schools in Fulton, about 100 miles west on I-70, cancels a high school play because he received three letters criticizing an earlier play.

Last fall, the high school drama club presented "Grease," the silly musical about a group of Chicago high schoolers, and three people complained. One of the three admitted he had not seen the play, but someone told him it was immoral.

Enderle had approved the play, but the three letters frightened him into canceling the spring production, which was to be Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." He had approved that one, too, without reading either. The drama teacher, Wendy De Vore, is looking for a new job. Enderle is not.

Because of his head-in-the-sand, stonewalling attitude, we'll probably never know exactly what transpired, at least until a teacher retires or a student graduates and one or the other writes a book or a magazine article.

And the St. Louis media can share some blame, too, not for participating in the censorship and First Amendment violations, of course, but in failing to take up some weapons and at least exposing an immoral act happening just down the road.

The New York Times carried the story on Page 1A on Feb. 11 and printed a number of letters to the editor over the next week or so. Almost unanimously, they decried the outcome caused by three minority protestors. Obviously, the article struck a responsive chord with some readers--and with hundreds of bloggers and independent commentators from around the country.

Most were amazed that a school superintendent would know so little about either play and that he would use a brief precis posted on the Internet to remove Miller's classic in favor of a Shakespeare comedy, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," that, among other things, promotes coupling between humans and animals.

In a duck-the-issue, softheaded, e-mailed response (he would not talk to this reporter), Enderle said he made the decision "to help our students prepare for their spring production absent any residual criticism and attention that may have resulted from the problems experienced with the full production."

He also said he did it "to avoid additional scrutiny that had already occurred as a result of the fall production of 'Grease.'"

Such arrant nonsense!

Both are among the top plays produced by high schoolers around the nation and have been seen, either on stage or on film, by most Americans.

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