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ACLU Criticizes Barrington School Decision to Ban Home-Grown Film From the Classroom

Posted: November 07, 2005|Category: Free Speech

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The R.I. ACLU today sharply criticized the Barrington School Department’s decision to completely ban any school showings of the film “Dirty Deeds,” even though the recently released PG-13 film was based on a script written by a former Barrington High School student as part of his senior project, and co-written by him and Barrington author Jon Land. The ban was adopted following some parents’ recent complaints about its showing in June in an eighth grade classroom.

In a letter sent to school officials, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said that the ban “sets a dangerous precedent that does damage to the mission of the public schools in Barrington and seriously erodes the principles underlying the district’s instructional material selection policy.” The letter emphasized that the movie’s June screening had been approved by all appropriate school officials, and was shown only to students who had received parental permission to watch the film. Further, the film was shown to students as part of a screenwriting portion of a language arts class, and at least one scene in the film deemed “lewd” was deliberately not shown.

While expressing support for a review procedure to consider complaints about curriculum material in a professional manner, the ACLU letter said that a decision to completely ban the film “makes the district’s instructional review policy so malleable as to be meaningless as a defense against community pressure to censor controversial material.” In fact, the letter argued, a number of the review policy’s “general criteria” for evaluating materials – such as their “overall purpose,” “popular appeal” and “significance of the source” would “seem to strongly favor use of the film in certain contexts.”

Even in evaluating material that has sexual or violent elements, the review policy states that such material should be “subjected to stern tests of literary and artistic merit and reality by the professionals who take into consideration the age and grade level of their student,” and that “sexual incidents, profanity or violence does not automatically disqualify material for use. Rather the decision should be made on the basis of whether the material is of literary and artistic value.”

However, the blanket ban, said the ACLU, “appears to fly in the face of this carefully crafted criterion. A decision to completely ban any classroom – whether in sixth grade or twelfth grade – from screening a PG-13 movie clearly fails to undertake the more nuanced consideration that this policy envisions. As for ‘literary and artistic value,’ people can obviously disagree about how good this film is, but for the Barrington School District to conclude that a film co-written by a Barrington High School graduate based on that student’s high school senior project has no literary or artistic value for any classroom is extraordinary.”

No rationale for the ban has been given, and the complaint prompting the review of the film is secret, as were the deliberations of the review committee. The letter concluded by expressing concern that the ban would “unleash more attempts to inappropriately censor materials in the classroom.”

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