Statement on Freedom of Expression

This statement was created and approved by a coalition of national arts and education organizations under the leadership of the Educational Theatre Association. Collaborating organizations are the American Alliance for Theatre & Education; National Federation of State High School Associations; National Speech and Debate Association; Theatre Communications Group; and The Dramatists Guild of America.

The Statement on Freedom of Expression provides support and guidelines for teachers in the selection of play scripts for production and speech & debate for topic and presentation, as well as classroom materials, and policy guidance for administrators in middle and high schools and professional theatre education departments. Adapted from the 2012 Statement on Freedom of Expression authored by EdTA, the American Alliance for Theatre & Education, and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, this statement is intended to affirm the right of free expression by students and their educators, while simultaneously recognizing the need for open communication with school leaders and community members.

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American Alliance for Theatre & Education logo
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Dramatists Guild logo - black letters on a white background

Theatre tells the stories of who we are. Through communal experiences, plays bring together imagined worlds on stages with actors, sets, lights, costumes, and sound that allow us to witness and reflect on the lives of others—their emotional trajectory of desire, disappointment, conflict, and resolution—whether through a monologue, song, or dance. As an art that reminds us that we are not alone, theatre can promote social discourse and change, prompt joy and sadness, and bring clarity to issues and ideas. No place is theatre’s value and purpose more apparent than on school stages and in classrooms where teachers guide and nurture students through the journey of “walking in someone else’s shoes” and the creation of worlds that could be, that might be.

The art of the spoken word has been a highly valued skill since Grecian times. Public speaking has proven to be a powerful skill to inform, to motivate, and to unite societies. Debate challenges students to analyze problems, conduct thorough research to view these problems from all sides, and utilize the principles of argumentation and advocacy in oral presentation. The open exchange of ideas and points of view is essential in any democratic society. Interpretative performances encourage students to explore, experience and then share literature through the art of oral interpretation, bringing a greater understanding of human life and empathy for mankind to the performer as well as the audience.

Theatre and speech & debate educators along with their students work at the confluence of two of the foundational values that support a free society: freedom of expression and the unfettered pursuit of knowledge. Despite the well-documented research that affirms the value of both learning experiences, too often teachers and students are confronted with external attempts to draw boundaries defining acceptable content leading to acts of censorship that have the effect of stifling free expression and stunting the educational process.

For the purposes of this document, educational theatre is defined as any theatre performance or learning activity in an educational setting for students in middle grades through post-graduate study and in programs sponsored by regional professional theatres.

Speech & Debate is defined as a learning activity in an educational setting for students in middle through postsecondary study. Both include informational and limited preparation speaking, Interpretative speaking, such as humor, drama, poetry, and prose, and prepared argumentation such as Policy Debate, Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Public Forum Debate, and Congressional Debate.

The sponsoring organizations affirm their support for the following standards for free expression in educational theatre and speech & debate.

I. Freedom of expression in middle and secondary school educational theatre and speech & debate programs: standards and guidelines

A. Standards for Programs

  1. Theatre, speech & debate programs operating in a school, college, university, or other educational setting should provide diverse productions, teaching activities, and support materials that examine the spectrum of human experience and present a range of points of view concerning the issues and problems of our times. No theatre production, speech presentation, or debate should be altered or canceled because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
  2. Scripts, textbooks, and other production and educational materials should be available and selected for their capacity to inform, educate, enlighten, and engage the interest of the school community. In no case should materials that meet educational or artistic criteria be excluded based on race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation, or the social, political, or religious views, of the author or another participant.
  3. The right of free expression does not encompass a right to make changes in another artist’s work without permission. Educators, administrators, and directors have an obligation to provide the public with truthful access to the complete work of art. Educators and administrators should be aware that selective censorship or changing of a script or copyrighted content without the consent of the author is a violation of copyright law.
  4. Student writing should be subject to the same standards and protections with respect to free expression as any other work that is considered for production, presentation, or classroom use.
  5. The right of an individual to admission to any theatre production, speech presentation or debate, workshop, or class must not be abridged based on race or ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, social or political views, or disability.
  6. Educational theatre, speech & debate programs should cooperate with those persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgement of free artistic expression.

B. Guidelines for Educators

In asserting a right to free expression through artistic and topical choices, theatre and, speech &, and debate educators must be prepared to accept responsibility for these choices. Toward that end, we encourage all educators to
devote significant time and resources to the following goals:

  1. Mastery of content (literature, history, criticism, pertinent social issues, discipline skills, etc.) and the ability to articulate a philosophy of theatre and speech & debate education to administrators, parents, and students that supports diversity, equity, inclusion, and access for all students and all points of view.
  2. The formulation of educational and artistic objectives for each play, scene, reading, and/or creative drama experience, and well-considered recommendations and guidance for speech presentations and debates.
  3. The development of workable techniques, activities, and materials relevant to the interests, abilities, and maturity of students.
  4. Regular communication regarding activities and goals to students, school administration, and (where appropriate) parents. For example, this may include providing students with instruction on educational and artistic reasons for inclusion of particular plays in the repertory, and discussion of considerations such as audience, technical capabilities, casting, and other factors that influence repertory choices. For speech, written or spoken communication might detail the rationale for an informative presentation on a particular topic or a performance of a poem. A debate topic might be considered based on its community relevance.
  5. Respect for works of dramatic art and other copyrighted work, which encompasses paying royalties as appropriate, complying with copyright law, and obtaining permission for text changes when required by contract or statute to do so.
  6. A good-faith effort to inform administrators of potentially serious topics well in advance of the scheduled production, presentation, or debate.
  7. Consideration of community expectations and attitudes in the selection of study and performance materials.
  8. Outreach to the school community with information regarding the artistic and educational objectives of the theatre or speech & debate program.
  9. Commitment to a process for the selection and presentation of scripts, scenes, or content that addresses claims of bias in the material raised by any intended participants or members of the community that may be based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, social or political views, or disability in ways that are inclusive of the views of all such students and community members.
  10. Maintenance of an inclusive and equitable environment in the classroom, rehearsal, and performance that promotes the free exchange and examination of ideas of social significance.
  11. Theatre and speech & debate educators should be prepared to offer alternative performance, presentation, and debate opportunities, where practical, to accommodate students who have sincere and conscientious objections to performing specific material in a production or addressing a particular topic in a speech or debate.

C. Guidelines for Middle and Secondary School Administrators

The statement’s sponsoring organizations make the following observations and recommendations regarding best practices for administrators with respect to educational theatre and speech & debate programs.

  1. We urge schools and school districts to establish policies recognizing the regularly appointed theatre, speech & debate faculty as the most qualified and appropriate people to make decisions about student public presentations or classroom presentations. For theatre: play selection, casting, and other aspects of programming. For speech: the selection of public speaking topics in extemporaneous, original oratory or informative presentations, and in choices for Interpretative performances in humor, drama, poetry, and prose. For debate: the choice to explore various subjects of argumentation.
  2. We acknowledge that some school administrators will reserve the right to review educators’ production, speeches, or debate topic choices, both for public presentation and in the classroom. Where such review is requested, we encourage the establishment of policies designed to prevent arbitrary restrictions on content and to ensure that prior restraint of a theatre production, speech presentation, or debate topic is exercised rarely and only as a last administrative resort. Administrators who seek to exercise prior restraint should be prepared to show that allowing the expression would ‘materially and substantially’ interfere with the operations of the school. The policy should also constrain administrators from retaliation against the educator based on play, speech presentation or debate topic choice.
  3. When faced with community objections or challenges to a proposed theatre production, speech presentation, and debate topic, institutions should consider these concerns according to their own established policies regarding other curricular or extracurricular matters such as selection of course readings or student-initiated or directed work. We further encourage administrators to accept these additional responsibilities with respect to free artistic expression in their theatre, speech & debate programs, as well as acknowledging the community value of such presentations, whether in a play, a speech, or debate by:
    • Making a commitment to hiring competent, diverse and qualified theatre and speech & debate educators.
    • Maintaining an atmosphere of free inquiry.
    • Supporting students in their exploration of a wide range of issues.
    • Becoming familiar with the materials and practices theatre and speech & debate education.
    • Promoting aesthetic education and artistic expression.
    • Attending school performances and debates.

II. Freedom of expression in non-profit professional theatre education departments

Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national organization for theatre, leads for a just and thriving theatre ecology. TCG believes its vision of “a better world for theatre, and a better world because of theatre” can be achieved through individual and collective action, adaptive and responsive leadership, and equitable representation in all areas of practice. TCG also believes that a child’s education is not complete unless it includes the arts.

Education departments at nonprofit theatres further their missions by producing broadly accessible, quality education programs that are connected to the artistic programming of the theatre. These inspirational programs amplify and expand upon school-based drama programs and can lead to greater understanding and empathy for others. To that end, freedom of expression in theatre education programs must be assured by:

  • Serving the interests of both the theatre and the school or community partner. Programs should not be excluded based on race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation, or social, political, or religious views.
  • Regular communication regarding programs between theatre educators and school and community partners. This may include providing context regarding the educational and artistic choices of programming. Theatre educators and classroom teachers are recognized as knowledgeable partners.
  • Allowing no programs to be altered or canceled because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
  • Maintaining an atmosphere of free inquiry that supports diversity, equity, inclusion, and access for all students, while being mindful that theatre content should respect the identity of all students.
  • Transparency of potentially serious topics well in advance of the scheduled production, to promote greater understanding of the material. Consideration of community expectations and attitudes in the selection of performance materials.

III. Freedom of expression on college campuses

Issues of free expression, academic freedom, compelled speech and equal protection may arise and come into conflict during the process of selecting, preparing and presenting a theatrical production at any educational institution. However, these issues must be treated somewhat differently in middle and secondary schools than they are in a postsecondary setting. Unlike K-12 students, college students are not minors; they have all the rights of citizens under the Constitution (both federal and state) and need to be dealt with as such.

Given this context, the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund sought to address the many compelling concerns raised by the increasing instances of cancellations of theatrical productions at colleges and universities. The DLDF (a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established by the Dramatists Guild to aid dramatists facing legal disputes) formed a working group of educators, activists, non-profits, and dramatists to conduct an extensive study of the matter. After two years of research, they issued their findings in a pamphlet, “Dramatic Changes: A toolkit for producing stage works on college campuses in turbulent times.”

The toolkit describes the historical and societal context of the subject, presents the legal issues raised by it, and offers step-by-step insights and suggestions for best practices as a play goes through the production process, including (i) selection of the work, (ii) casting and staffing, (iii) rehearsals, (iv) performance, and (v) post-production, offering advice on how to deal with controversy that may erupt during any of these stages. It also lists other resources available to help understand and address these issues.

So, if you are an educator or administrator facing demands for cancelation of a theatrical production, and if you have employed the steps and procedures recommended by the toolkit, then you owe it to all the stakeholders on your campus to resist such pressure. Because, when a school agrees to cancel an announced production (whether due to pressure based on claims of “harm” or otherwise, coming from students, administrators, the campus community, special interest groups, or the general public), it confirms to the world that those tactics work, and they are an appropriate response to offensive or challenging work. Such claims, however, must be balanced with principles of academic freedom and the constitutional right of free expression. Otherwise, acceding to such demands establishes a worrying precedent that whichever group applies the most political pressure should be able to dictate what is acceptable in the performing arts at your institution.

In these defining moments, the university is also communicating key values to its student body, including the next generation of theater makers; by caving to such pressure, you are normalizing censorious behavior and teaching your students to accept it throughout their careers. Finally, a university’s attempt to avoid controversy by canceling a show can actually cause controversy in and of itself, so it’s a futile strategy. What’s more, it is an act that contradicts the function of a university as one of the few spaces in American life that is dedicated to the free exchange of ideas.

If you have more questions about this issue, please visit the DLDF website. 

Conclusion

The communal quality of the theatre and speech & debate experiences create a powerful venue for engaging individuals who hold divergent views in a conversation about difficult questions and issues. Theatre and speech & debate educators can and should facilitate student and audience dialogues around production and presentation subject matter. For theatre, this can be done by framing the issues in director’s notes in the playbill and by arranging panel discussions and post-show audience talkbacks. Speech presentations and debates can follow a similar strategy, offering post-event discussions to further explore topics and information addressed.

To help students realize their full learning potential through theatre and speech & debate, it is essential that educators, schools, and school boards create an environment and context in which complicated and challenging issues can be explored, discussed, and enacted, giving voice to the complexity of our world and the stories and subjects our students already encounter every day, as they build skills and talents that will serve them throughout their lives.

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