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Defending censorship in Wilton April 6, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Drama in Wilton, Legit, Theater.

While the Wilton school administration dithers and foot-drags their final decision about whether to permit an on-campus staging of the Theater Arts II class project “Voices In Conflict,” the family that single-handedly provoked the censorship is fighting back in print and online.

Barbara Alessi‘s son, Lt. Zach Alessi-Friedlander, is serving in Iraq, and her daughter, Gabriella Alessi-Friedlander, is a WHS student. After learning that the Theater Arts II class was doing a play about Iraq, Gabriella enrolled in the class with the stated intention of making sure the presentation was “fair and balanced”.

At Gabriella’s request the students removed quotes from her brother, and after a review of the play by the head of WHS’s English department, further changes were made to remove some of the more violent passages (here are early and more recent drafts). Nevertheless, in early March, Gabby quit the class, and on March 13, WHS principal Tim Canty told the class that the play could not be performed.

In her March 24 New York Times article that brought the controversy to international attention, Alison Leigh Cowan reported that

Reached by telephone, Gabby’s mother, Barbara Alessi, said she had no knowledge of the play or her daughter’s involvement in it.

The family of Pvt. Nicholas Madaras, a WHS graduate who died in Iraq last September, said

they had not read the play, and had no desire to meddle in a school matter. But his mother, Shalini Madaras, added, “We always like to think about him being part of us, and people talking about him, I think it’s wonderful.”

By the time crews from CNN and Good Morning America showed up in the wake of the Times article, Barbara Alessi seems to have become much better informed about her daughter’s school activities. Throughout the controversy, Barbara and Gabriella, along with Principal Canty, have been the only direct participants to speak up publicly in the media with the pro-censorship side of the controversy.

Sarah Darer Littman, a reporter/columnist for the Greenwich Time newspaper who blogs at MyLeftNutmeg under the pseudonym saramerica, has posted some of the most acute insights into the aftermath of the cancellation and the effects on the Theater Arts II students. Pittman posted a link to an article from last October by Lt. Friedlander in the Fort Drum Blizzard newspaper that that begins:

Access to a quality education is the foundation upon which a thriving democratic society evolves.

Lt. Friedlander has responded to Littman’s post, which has led to a fascinating exchange. Kudos to Littman and yes, even to Lt. Friedlander (although I’d have a lot more respect for his position if he’d actually read the play in its pre- and post-Gabby versions).

Meanwhile, Lt. Friedlander’s mother is “setting the record straight” in an op-ed piece in the Wilton Bulletin. God help the record.

This week’s Bulletin features a full-frontal attack by Barbara Alessi on Bonnie Dickinson, the thoughtful and courageous teacher who had the initial idea of staging a reading and research project about the Iraq War:

This was never about the ideal of freedom of speech. It was about the manipulative use and abuse of that principle by a vindictive teacher who used the hot button issue to attract the attention of the New York Times.

From CTPatriot’s response on MyLeftNutmeg:

Ummm, perhaps I am missing something here, but didn’t the play get cancelled BEFORE the NY Times ever wrote an article that made her daughter look bad? And wasn’t the play cancelled because Barbara Alessi complained about the bias? And doesn’t that mean that she had issues with the play before she had issues with the teacher’s alleged mistreatment of her daughter or the NY Times’ alleged misportrayal of her daughter? And wouldn’t that mean this really is, at its core, about the ideals of free speech? Just askin’!

Back to Alessi in the Bulletin:

The New York Times, in writing, has stated to me that Ms. Dickinson made specific statements to the Times concerning my daughter by name. Activities that Ms Dickinson stated that she personally witnessed and ascribed to my child never happened. Why would a teacher make absolute incontrovertibly untrue statements about a student? Is there any other conclusion to draw than that this teacher sought, with specific intent, to publicly malign my daughter and impugn her good name? To this date, The New York Times is scrambling, post publication, to verify Ms. Dickinson’s claims. They will be unable. It was and remains without any factual merit.

In reality Gabriella Alessi-Friedlander is a principled young woman whose only transgression was to have the courage to stand up to this teacher and refuse to be cowered [sic].

To that end, I have initiated a formal Wilton School District administrative review of Ms. Dickinson’s actions. I am confident in its outcome.

I’m going to take back a little of the snark I’ve dished about the Bulletin, the newspaper that passes for mainstream media in Ira Levin’s former hometown. Alessi’s attack in this week’s issue is balanced by a fair and objective article on the status of the controversy, and an interview with Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America. Rieckhoff, one of the soldiers quoted in “Voices In Conflict”, supported the students and the production in a column on the Huffington Post, and he has said he would make every effort to attend the play when it is performed.

It seems increasingly inevitable that that performance will not take place at Wilton High School. Tim Canty’s latest screed to the WHS parents notwithstanding, Canty has said to one of the students that his idea of “when” the play could be performed at WHS is “five years from now”. Or, as the student said, “when it no longer matters”.

Here is my webpage tracking the controversy.

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1. Barbara alessi | Jlaura - March 30, 2012

[…] Defending censorship in Wilton « This is not my blog.Apr 6, 2007 … Barbara Alessi’s son, Lt. Zach Alessi-Friedlander, is serving in Iraq, and her daughter, Gabriella Alessi-Friedlander, is a WHS student. […]

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