Saturday, April 15, 2006

Poetry and Justice

A poem by W.H. Auden has become the subject of a ban by a school in the United States, the U.K. Times reports:
A school in Reno, Nevada, has attempted to ban a 14-year-old boy from reciting The More Loving One by the gay British poet on the grounds that the verse contains “profanity” and “poor language”.

This week Jacob Behymer-Smith won a restraining order from a federal judge against the Coral Academy of Science, which should allow him to read the poem in a state-wide competition at the Governor’s mansion.

The lines in question might appear fairly innocent by the standards of some literature. “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well/That, for all they care, I can go to hell”, was one example that the school found unacceptable. “Admirer as I think I am/Of stars that do not give a damn”, was another.

But after Jacob recited them in a district contest ten days ago, Steven West, the school’s human resources dean, ordered him to select another poem.

He issued a memo to teachers and students, advising them that there would be no tolerance of “use (of) poor language in public events”.

Cheryl Garlock, the dean of the academy, said that her policy was to present children only with “pristine” language.

Jacob said that he felt “completely disgusted and appalled by (the) school’s decision”.

At the court hearing on Wednesday, he told the judge that he had practised reciting the poem twice a day for two months, and that forcing him to choose another would be unfair. In granting the injunction, Judge Brian Sandoval said that there was “a total absence of any evidence” that the school’s ban was legal under the US Constitution and that Jacob’s First Amendment rights to free speech were probably being violated.

Nevada’s attempted poetry censorship is not an isolated case in a country where there appears once again to be growing tension between free speech and public morals.

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