Killing a classic

Censorship : Offensive language can be instructional in a play about racism and segregation.

November 06, 1999

BANNING the stage adaptation of Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" at Owings Mills High School may have one beneficial effect. Students who have not yet read the novel -- required of all ninth graders in Baltimore County public schools -- may now pick it up to see what all the fuss is about.

That would be the best outcome of Principal Margaret I. Spicer's unfortunate decision to squelch a student production of the play.

Like many works of literature, "To Kill a Mockingbird" makes a moral point by depicting a moral vacuum; the topics it addresses -- including rape and racism -- create discomfort. The language in the play is offensive.

Ms. Spicer was concerned that students using racial epithets on stage might not please some members of the audience. But isolating these words demeans the play's intent -- to condemn racism by illustrating its worst qualities.

Too often, that's how we address controversial topics in our society.

If a book explores taboos, ban it -- whether or not it makes an instructive point. If a film makes us uncomfortable by forcing us to face ugly realities that need correcting, shout it down.

You can see some of Ms. Spicer's thinking in New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's tantrums over a controversial art show. Strains of her logic echo in the recent decision by the the Kansas state board of education to ban the teaching of evolution.

Rather than bar the staging of this play, Ms. Spicer could have used it as an impetus for a school-wide discussion of race -- something that would benefit children at Owings Mills High and schools throughout the Baltimore area. The play could have been a catalyst for learning, rather than an excuse for continued ignorance.

How much further will we have to travel into the next millennium before that approach -- rather than brute-force censorship -- is favored by Ms. Spicer and others who hold sway over young people?

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