Censorship in the Name of Good Behavior

from the New York Times, by Jesse Kornbluth, April 24, 1996

Cissy Lacks is white, and every student she taught at Berkeley High School in St. Louis County was black. But failure to connect with her students was not why the School Board dismissed her. Nor was it the quality of her work in the classroom, for she had once won an award as one of the nation’s 15 best teachers. Even for a veteran English teacher with 25 years of experience in St. Louis area schools, the cause of her troubles is hard to explain.

“I tell my story, and people ask, `Isn’t there something else?’ ” Lacks said recently. “And there isn’t. This is it.”

What happened, the School Board in the Ferguson-Florissant District decided, was that Lacks failed “to censor her students’ creative expressions.”

That judgment provoked a firestorm of editorials and a federal lawsuit in which Lacks seeks reinstatement. And she was honored by PEN, a writers’ association that defends freedom of expression, which gave her a $25,000 check and the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award.

The incident that prompted her dismissal was, for Lacks, nothing more than an example of good teaching in a school where academic success is rare.

In the fall of 1994, she began teaching her 11th-grade English students about dramatic dialogue by showing two films, “Cadence” and “Stand by Me.” Then she had them read “Fences” by August Wilson out loud together. Only then did she ask them to write short plays, advising them, “Write dialogue that’s natural.”

Later, when they read their works aloud, she taped them. “I wanted them to be able to hear their dialogue,” she said.

A few months later, a student alerted Vernon Mitchell, the principal of Berkeley High, about the tapes. Mitchell confiscated them and discovered that Lacks had condoned the use of profanity in class. School district officials suspended her, and in March 1995, after five nights of public hearings, the School Board dismissed her.

The offense that led to her dismissal may puzzle Lacks but is not at all confusing to attorney Frank Susman, who has represented the School Board for 20 years and has served on the national board of the American Civil Liberties Union for four.

“Lacks has raised this as a free-speech issue, but no one has limited her speech and no one took any action against her students,” he said. “The question is, does a school board have the right to define community norms and impose them? Clearly, it does. And the board had clearly expressed its policy: Students are forbidden to use profanity. There was even a `No Profanity’ sign in her classroom.”

As a legal matter, Lacks maintains, the board has justified the dismissal by relying on a policy that applies only to student misbehavior, not the teaching of writing. “The appendix to the student disciplinary code describes things students can do to misbehave,” she said. “A Type Two problem, like littering or profanity, calls for a 10-day suspension. What I did was to disobey a code for students that had never been applied to teachers.”

To Cindy Ormsby, until recently the School Board president, that argument is really an admission of guilt. “That the policy is directed at students isn’t the point,” she said. “It’s up to the teacher to uphold the policy rather than to encourage students to disobey it.”

For Lacks, it makes no sense to honor an unbending code when teaching writing to high school students who are exposed to gangs, sex and drugs. She recognizes that some of her syllabus is provocative, and she said she had a practice of sending a letter to parents at the start of the semester. “I tell them, `These are the films we’ll see, these are the topics we’ll discuss,’ ” she said. “I ask them to tell me if something bothers them. And they must sign the form and return it.”

The real problem, she suggests, is with Mitchell, who she believes reacted less as an educator than as an African-American who took offense at a white teacher grappling with racially charged material. According to a transcript read at the School Board hearings, Mitchell told some of Lacks’ students, “You made black fools of yourselves and you let white folk tape it.”

At those hearings, district officials also took offense at three poems that Lacks submitted from an earlier class to show how her students make a transition from vulgarity to eloquence.

In the first, the student writes in graphic and violent language about a “hard-core gangsta pimp.” A few weeks later, in a poem with no profanity, he writes movingly, “I love my shoes/more than I love my mother” and “The only time I show love/is in my dreams.” That poem, she testified, won a local award. The School Board, unimpressed, added the earlier poems to the accusations against her.

“The week after I was fired, every `damn’ and `hell’ was cut from a school performance of `Oklahoma’ in my district,” Lacks said. “I’ve heard teachers tell me they’re afraid to teach now. Some say, in front of their writing classes, `I don’t want to be a Cissy Lacks.’ “

For that reason, Lacks intends to return to Berkeley High if she is vindicated in court.

“My students did nothing wrong, and I did nothing wrong,” she said. “The clearest way for me to demonstrate that is to walk through those doors and stand with my students.”