Same-sex marriage TV forum censored
MARYLAND — The Montgomery County School Board overruled the school superintendent in April and said school officials should not have pulled the plug on a student-run television program.
The controversy focused on the October edition of the program Shades of Grey, a panel discussion show produced by students at Blair High School for the county cable system’s education channels.
The show dealt with the topic of same-sex marriage and featured guests representing Concerned Women for America and the Eagle Forum, who spoke against the topic, and the D.C. Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance and People for the American Way in support of it. It was scheduled to air live on October 15, but was not permitted to air due to what school officials called “scheduling problems.” Shades of Grey was taped and rescheduled to air several days later.
But officials for the school district1s educational channels refused to allow the program to go on because of one segment in which officials say a guest “brought up the issue of religion and God in a very heated and controversial manner.”
“At times during the show, the debate did get heated and lively — that’s what Shades of Grey is about,” said Andrea Mirriam, the producer of the show. “I want to share this production with my community.”
Associate Superintendent Joseph Villani supported the decision to pull the show, and told the WBNC staff that the topic was not appropriate for the educational channel. Later,the superintendent’s office downplayed the controversy and began instead to cite technical problems with the show as justification for upholding the censorship.
“Technically, this is a strong show. We haven’t received a technical complaint in eight years,” said Shanon Henry, chief engineer at WBNC. “It’s actually a pretty lame diversion — the real issue here is content.”
Jamin B. Raskin, pro bono counsel for the WBNC staff, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the students’ appeal to the school board. The students were supported by their faculty adviser, the school’s principal, the Montgomery County PTA, the Maryland Scholastic Press Association and several individuals and community groups.
“This controversy is dealing with content, not technical problems,” said Blair High School principal Philip Gainous, during a press conference organized by the students. “These students have taught me, really, how to go through an adverse situation with dignity and style. We’ll all be better for having watched these children. I fully support them in this.”
The education channels in Montgomery County are considered a “limited public forum,” according to Raskin. The students would like to expand their rights for the future, but say this censorship is a violation even under the current guidelines.
“It’s not okay to censor on the basis of opinions contained in that forum,” Raskin said. “It was censored because of its content, because of the certain viewpoints of religion presented in the program. They felt this show went over the line when one of the participants expressed his religious viewpoint. Rather than admit their own mistakes, they would rather fault the students.”
The staff of WBNC, headed by executive producer Andrea Stuart, appealed the censorship decision to the school board in January. On April 23, the board voted 5 to 3 to allow the students to air the program.
The board found that the school system had not set clear guidelines for what was considered to be proper programming and was therefore not justified in censoring the show.
School officials were directed to work with the teachers and student leaders of WBNC to establish policies for regulation of the student programs in the future.
As new technology spreads in schools across the country, students and school boards are trying to figure out how much freedom will be afforded to non-print student media. The students at Blair High School say they1ve learned from the experience they went through this year.
“I’ve learned a lot about the appeal process,” producer Mirriam said. “I’ve become less naive about how my school system works. I never in my wildest dreams would have guessed that this show would not be appropriate for Montgomery schools.”
“It feels really good to know that you can work with the system, no matter how much it seems like your enemy,” Stuart said, after the board announced its descision. “I think this is a great victory for all of us as students.”
“If we can’t stand up for free expression in Montgomery County, where can we?” Raskin said referring the fact that the suburb of Washington, D.C., is generally regarded as one of the most progressive in the country when it comes to educational policy.
“What we1re in search of is a few adults in the Montgomery school system who will be willing to admit that they’ve made a mistake.”
reports, Spring 1997