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Community Centers, Schools and Free Speech

I mentioned this D&C article yesterday, flagged by a reader, about Fairport School District’s decision to say “no” to a production of the play RENT, citing the school’s sense of the appropriateness of the play for a high school. 13WHAM’s Liz Schubert also reports on this story, which seems to be making quite a stir in the two journo’s comment sections.

Let me begin my comments with a slight correction to Liz’s story:

The Parent Teacher Student Association provides the space free of charge, receives some of the profits, and uses that money for student scholarhips.

This is not entirely accurate: high schools are public buildings paid for with tax money. As such, they are free and open to the public with two notable exceptions: during regular class hours and on election nights, where access is restricted. As such, the public has the right to stage whatever productions they see fit inside the building and no special permission is necessarily required. Here in East Rochester, I know of a few people on my street that use the local high school gym equipment on off hours.

At the same time, the superintendent of schools has an obligation to ensure that the public property he’s responsible for is used in an appropriate manner. In fact, when you get down to the nuts and bolts of what a superintendent does, that is precisely his job description. So personally, I am not challenging Jon Hunter’s propriety in deciding what uses are and are not acceptable.

What is objectionable in Hunter’s decision is for a superintendent to arbitrarily decide – based solely on his own interpretation of the content of the play – that the play is inappropriate for public space outside of the school season. What’s worse is what the two subjects cited as beyond the pale for the school are: drug use and homosexuality. What about these two subjects is so innately untouchable? It seems like in this modern world, these are exactly the types of subjects we should be challenging our kids with in schools.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.