Censorship, General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Committee

by Joyce Johnston

It contained age-appropriate themes of young alienation, the emptiness of suburban culture, the clash between personal goals and patriotism, and the search for meaningful relationships—and it was just cancelled at Enfield High School.  As far as anyone can tell, no students were consulted when Principal Andrew Longley and Nate Ferriera, faculty director of the drama club, decided to cancel American Idiot due to objections from “a very small number of extremely vocal people.”   Non-objecting parents don’t seem to have been consulted either.  Apparently, if a small group was passionate enough, that was sufficient.

Ironically, the protesters hadn’t even seen the right version of the musical, but complained about “the mature content of the original production.” Actually, as Censorship 1 students 0Ferreira explained in a Jan. 17 email, the publishers were working with the drama club to be sure that an edited script would be appropriate for high school.  The complainers never even considered how much the students would learn by working through the challenges of writing for different audiences.  Ferriera himself claimed that the publisher MTI might use Enfield’s revision as an official “school edition” for other high school productions.  Student dramatists could have become nationally recognized for their ability to balance public decency issues with the satirical spirit of the original musical.

Billie Joe Armstrong is the front man and lead singer for Green Day, whose album American Idiot inspired the musical. The minute he heard about Enfield’s decision, he took to Instagram to make another valuable point—that cancellation equaled censorship.  “This production tackles issues in a post 9/11 world and I believe the kids should be heard and most of all be creative in telling a story about our history.”

The biggest casualty in all this is the students’ intellectual freedom.  Director of the Arts and Integrity Initiative Howard Sherman immediately realized that the entire Enfield school district had missed an invaluable opportunity to help adolescents grow through tackling difficult issues together.  And only three days after American Idiot’s cancellation, James LaRue, the OIF’s new Director, lamented in an OIF blog post that schools wanted to students to develop critical thinking skills, “while at the same time depriving them of the resources and rights through which such thinking is developed.”  He couldn’t have picked a more telling example than this one.

OIF Staff Update: The Office for Intellectual Freedom has signed a letter with other IF organizations stating:

“If the play was cancelled at this late stage solely as a result of complaints by a few vocal parents, as Mr. Ferreira stated, there are serious pedagogical and constitutional concerns. Halting the play because some individuals do not approve of its content deprives the rest of the students – whose parents might welcome the play, even in its unedited form – from experiencing the production and violates core free expression principles.”


Joyce Johnston teaches at George Mason University and has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years and serves on the Executive Committee for the World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (aka EdMedia).


  • I’m not sure it it has always been the case, but it feels more and more like teachers have to be afraid to teach. If one complaint comes in the principals fold, probably because they are afraid for their jobs as well, and often politicized school boards launch an investigation. I’m not sure what a better method would be, but I think much of this environment is created by using elected school boards to guide education rather than professional educators.

  • You’ve raised important concerns here, Dustin. It does indeed seem as though even a small parental complain produces immediate administrative backpedaling rather than any support for teachers, librarians or other staff involved. Elected school boards, however, are extremely vulnerable to political pressure and electioneering, so I’m not sure what the solution is.

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