Blackmail over Secrets in Harford

December 21, 1992

Blackmail is a strong word but that's a fair description of what Jeffrey D. Wilson, the Harford County Council president, seems to be up to while invoking the unauthorized power of the council to push his personal beliefs.

Mr. Wilson, in a letter read at a recent county school board meeting, warned that the council could cut school funds if the board allowed further performances of an AIDS/sex-education play aimed at senior high pupils.

Written on council letterhead, the Presbyterian minister implied that the council as a whole endorsed his threats. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is nothing, indeed, to suggest that they even share his personal moral objections to themes in the "Secrets" playlet that was developed by a health care organization.

Well known for his prolific letter writing and upfront stands on controversial topics, Mr. Wilson has posed before as the unified voice of the entire council in dealing with the school board. Earlier this year, he demanded that the school board reinstate salary increases for teachers and other employees or face the consequences. That led to some musings about when a council president was actually a council president or a private citizen, but it didn't blunt the thrust of his message to the board of education that he held council authority.

Mr. Wilson is entitled to express his personal opinions about public issues, but they should be carefully and precisely labeled as such. And if the council takes a formal stand on issues before the board, he may deliver that position.

He's right that the council has a particular obligation to weigh the views of all county residents (and that is it more representative of current county views than a school board appointed by a governor in Annapolis.) But he's wrong to threaten council sanctions for his own personal beliefs. In fact, the County Council has not cut the school budget in over a decade -- for any reason.

A lot of people believe that "Secrets" may be inappropriate for teens, that it may ignore abstinence as a means of AIDS prevention and it may undermine parental responsibility. They can keep their children from seeing it. But the vast majority of parents and citizens do not appear to share those opinions in this blunt effort to get across a very important lesson in life -- and death.

Anne Sterling, the school board president, rightly declared that "we won't back down" and that the play must go on. About that, she made no secrets.

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