Steamboat family recruits help of religious rights attorney over ‘Howl’ controversy
A month after a review committee ruled to keep a controversial poem in the Steamboat Springs High School curriculum, a student’s family has recruited the help of a religious rights lawyer in an attempt to strong-arm changes in school policy.
The issue began in October, when students in high school English teacher Ryan Ayala’s music literature class read and discussed parts of Allen Ginsberg’s 3,000-word poem, “Howl.”
Published in 1956, the poem elicited praise as a “prophetic work” and is considered a literary canon of the Beat Generation. Its lewd language and graphic sexual reference also sparked criticism, culminating in an obscenity trial to determine if it should be banned and its publishers criminally punished.
One student’s father, Steamboat resident Brett Cason, lodged an official complaint over the poem, which prompted the district’s review committee to evaluate the material.
In an 8-1 decision, the committee determined “Howl” is “an influential part of our history” and, when taught in the context of the time period in which it was written, is an “important” piece of literature with widespread influence on poetry, art, jazz and hip-hop, Steamboat Pilot & Today reported following the ruling.
Jay Hamric, director of teaching and learning for the Steamboat Springs School District, oversaw the review process. He said Cason had an opportunity to appeal the committee’s decision, but he did not do so.
Instead, Cason hired Jeremy Dys, an attorney at First Liberty Institute, which on its website claims to be the largest legal organization in the country specializing in religious rights cases. Cason declined to be interviewed by Steamboat Pilot & Today and deferred questions to Dys.
In a statement to Brad Meeks, superintendent of the school district, Dys claimed that Cason’s daughter, Skylar, was exposed to “offensive, lewd and lascivious material” in Ayala’s class, referring to parts of the poem that made her feel “guilty” and “violated.”
Dys cites one line of the poem in particular, in which Ginsberg speaks of the best minds of his generation, “who let themselves be f*** in the a** by saintly motorcyclists and scream with joy.”
According to Dys, this language is inappropriate, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement involving sexual assault. He said such language describes “sexual violence against women and vivid literary depictions of heterosexually and homosexually erotic acts.”
Ginsberg identified as a homosexual and pacifist, spearheading anti-war demonstrations in the 1950s and ’60s. “Howl” is seen by many literary experts as an expression of freedom and a rejection of conformism.
In a Slate article, journalist Fred Kaplan described it as a “hymn to the holiness of everything about the human body and mind, splashed in verse that breaks free from standard meter but speaks instead in the long lines and jangling rhythm of natural breath and conversation.”
At the conclusion of the obscenity trial in 1957, Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that “Howl and Other Poems” was not obscene but contained “redeeming social importance.” He supported its protection and distribution under the First Amendment. Horn also cleared the poem’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookstore, of any criminal charges.
Dys also cites the First Amendment in his statement to argue that Skylar Cason’s religious rights had been violated, referencing the 1992 Supreme Court Case, Lee v. Weisman.
“The knowing presentation of material that violates the religious beliefs of Skylar and her parents to view, without adequate forewarning and the option to opt-out and provide an alternative assignment, rises to the level of the unacceptable coercive pressure contemplated in Leeand deprives students of their First Amendment rights of conscience and religious liberty,” Dys said in the statement.
In the same statement, he demands a written apology from teacher Ryan Ayala be sent to all parents in the class. Dys also requests all district staff be required to receive two hours of training on the use of controversial materials, two hours of sensitivity training on parental rights in public education and two hours of sensitivity training on the protection of student religious liberty and the rights of conscience.
Dys wants these conditions to be met by the end of the year and threatens stricter legal action otherwise.
It is unclear if the district will adopt these measures.
In a statement posted on the district’s website Monday, Meeks apologized for not alerting parents prior to the start of the school year to give students a choice to opt out of this part of the curriculum. Meeks called the issue “simply an oversight” of not understanding school policy.
He is referring to Administrative Policy I-9-E, which makes it possible for parents to learn of controversial material ahead of time and for students to receive alternative assignments “when feasible” upon request.
“We are working to ensure that all of our teachers are aware of proper procedures around incorporating controversial materials and follow them,” Meeks said in the statement. “Students who choose not to engage in the material will be given an alternative assignment.”
An additional statement was sent to families and staff Wednesday reinforcing the commitment to the policy, emphasizing more work would be done to ensure it is followed in the future.
In a letter to Brett Cason, Ayala apologized for introducing a text in class that made students, namely Skylar, uncomfortable. He said Ginsberg’s poem is the “most controversial” piece of literature the class covers, but he includes it to encourage students to take a critical look at what determines artistic merit and what justifies censorship.
“It is my goal, through this poem, that students will consider their self-expression and embrace authenticity, while being open to others’ demonstrations of their own,” Ayala said in the letter.
Ayala said he does not personally endorse Ginsberg’s claims in the poem. He acknowledged he should have alerted parents about the controversial material before the semester started and said he has taken action to avoid further problems, such as making it an option for students to watch the movie version of the poem, also included in the curriculum.
Hamric stands by the review committee’s decision to keep the poem in the school curriculum.
“I think it is an important piece of American culture, of American society,” he said. “It is something I would want our students, in a safe and supportive environment, to discuss and learn about.”
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