Friday, May 27, 2005

MTV, NiNs and right-wing censorship


If you go to the Nine Inch Nails website you'll find a short message from Trent Reznor on the news page (, dated May 26, 2005 and signed by Trent: "Nine Inch Nails will not be performing at the MTV Movie Awards as previously announced. We were set to perform "The Hand That Feeds" with an unmolested straightforward image of George W Bush as the backdrop. Apparently the image of our president is as offensive to MTV as it is to me. See you on tour this fall when we return to play America."

What's the story behind the statement? Apparently someone high up enough at MTV to write off an appearance by one of the most creative, respected and popular pop artists in the world vetoed Trent's plan to make a mildly suggestive statement that George W Bush is not perfect. Has MTV caved in to the Religionist Right's echo chamber demanding that poets, musicians and entertainers should have no platform for their political beliefs? Rush Limbaugh always described himself as "an entertainer" but when someone's thoughts are put to a melody and backed by guitars... well,
then the Right brands them as brain dead and unworthy of expressing an opinion. Of course this isn't as bad as what the extreme right does to politicians they deem a threat to their interests, the ones who have a direct charasmatically-based connection to people (like John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Paul Wellstone. At least Howard Dean was only "assassinated" with a soundbyte.)

A little postscript-- my friend Jim sent me this article that ran today in the L.A. DAILY NEWS. It's even scarier.

Bush as Groucho Posters Removed from School
Dana Bartholomew, The L. A. Daily News, May 27, 2005,1413,200~20954~2890519,00.html

WOODLAND HILLS -- A doctored poster of President George W. Bush -- sporting Groucho Marx's dark eyebrows, mustache and stogie -- was supposed to promote a high school play.

But for award-winning drama students at El Camino Real High School, it turned out to be a stark lesson in free speech. The poster was close, but no cigar.

After one student complained last week, school officials ordered a hundred of the posters ripped from the Woodland Hills campus on grounds they promoted smoking and political preference.

"There's an issue in the first (poster) regarding the smoking and endorsing one ideology over another," said Principal Kenny Lee, who had the posters removed. "That's our take on the student speech and conduct."

The controversy began when students of the theater department created the poster, paid for by the school, to promote their new play, "The Complete History of America (Abridged)," a zany spoof on the last 500 years.

Because the jacket of the original play depicts George Washington with a Groucho treatment, students thought their production promo deserved a fresh look.

So on Dubya's sleepy-eyed mug they dabbed black bushy brows, a thick mustache and a lit Macanudo cigar. Dubya stood for politics; Groucho for satire. Perfect twin symbols of their play, they reasoned.

All went well until a high school senior and Bush supporter wrote a letter of complaint to the administration last week for the way the president was depicted, according to teachers and students. The complaining student added that Bush was also made to look "like an Israeli."

"We had one student who was very upset," Lee said. "So much turmoil within himself, he was distraught. The older generation understood the message. I don't think the younger one did.

"If something is bothering a student on campus, we're going to address it. We're not going to sweep it under the table."

Lee said that he forwarded the complaint to the Los Angeles Unified School District attorney and local district officials, then decided to pull the posters because they represented a school-sponsored event.

Many students are incensed at the ban.

"It taught us that the First Amendment certainly does not guarantee the right of free speech," said Jes Shah, 16, of West Hills, a junior enrolled in the school drama program.

"Instead, we have more restrictions on what we can say."

It took two hours for school administrators to tear down the offending posters. Lee then asked students to go back to the drawing board.

The result: six new play promotion broadsheets with a silhouette of Bush and a burning cigar, including such inscriptions as: "Free Expression for All (unless you are in high school)." "What First Amendment?" "LAUSD (heart symbol) Censorship." "Support Our Troops."

And "ECR Drama Hates Smoking."

"They're good," Lee said. "I like the follow-ups."

The drama department, voted No. 1 in the nation by the American High School Theatre Festival, is raising money to perform "The Laramie Project," a controversial play about the death of a young gay man in Wyoming, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland this August

Drama teacher Sue Freitag said she didn't think the Los Angeles Unified School District understood the meaning of political satire -- a humorous spoof on government -- and that obviously some Republican didn't like George Bush looking like Groucho Marx.

"You have to know, all of this goes together perfectly with our play," said Freitag, a 1988 graduate of El Camino Real who enjoys the support of the principal. "It's kind of playful. We don't need to attack anyone over this. It's great publicity for our play."

A spokesman for the White House did not return calls.

LAUSD's rules on political speech cite California laws that guarantee freedom of the press for all official school publications distributed to the student body.

The exceptions: obscene, libelous or slanderous materials; or when such publications incite students to violence, unlawful behavior or disruptions of school operations.

But because the speech was made by a school-sponsored poster and not a school journalist or writer, said one First Amendment attorney, the poster ban was not a violation of free speech.

"This is institutional speech as opposed to any student speech," said Doug Mirell, a First Amendment attorney at Loeb & Loeb LLP who has taught free speech law at the University of Southern California and Loyola Law School.

"It's unfortunate that such censorship has occurred and that people can't take a joke. But this doesn't appear to rise to the level of a First Amendment issue."

Human rights advocates didn't think it was an anti-Semitic one, either.

"It would be very different if someone were saying (the students) were trying to make Bush look like a Jew," said Alison Mayersohn, the Anti-Defamation League's associate director of the Pacific Southwest Region, who hadn't seen the poster.

"As far as a stereotype of an Israeli, I would say there is no stereotypical Israeli."

The original poster, say students, was created by none other than a high school native of Israel.

"We're a bunch of crazy, light-hearted drama kids," said Joan Hurwit, 17, of Canoga Park, a four-year veteran of the drama department. "We never intended to promote such controversy, to mock any political group, or our president.

"We're just trying to promote our play and get to Scotland."

--Dana Bartholomew, (818) 713-3730


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