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Elvis Presley Song Lyrics Causing Trouble in 2013?

Elvis Presley certainly stirred up controversy in the 1950s but who would have thought that his songs would create an uproar in 2013.  A Utah school district nearly canceled a production of “All Shook Up” after finding that it included sexually suggestive songs that could be deemed offensive. [1] The show is based on a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and incorporates songs from Elvis Presley. The allegedly offensive aspects of the play were brought to the district’s attention after a complaint was lodged. [2] Some of the song lyrics and a scene involving cross-dressing seemed to incite particular controversy.  Upon reviewing the show further it was deemed not to meet the standards the district had put in place over the summer. The School Board amended its policy on drama productions in August after the conservative group, Utah Eagle Forum, found a Bingham High School production of “Dead Man Walking” inappropriate stating that the show contained profanity, racial slurs, sexual language and political bias.[3]

Students had been rehearsing the play since September and were eagerly awaiting a February debut. Originally school officials believed they could not change or remove the potentially offensive content due to copyright laws. However, a deal has been worked out with the publisher that would allow them to make changes to satisfy community standards. [4]

The issue of students’ rights when engaging in extracurricular activities piggy backs off our earlier post regarding students’ first amendment rights in general. Legal precedent distinguishes between student speech occurring during extracurricular activities and private student expression arising out of non-curricular activity. In Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court held that school officials may exercise authority over student speech that “members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school.” [5] Specifically, the Court found that student activities such as theatrical productions can be deemed part of the school curriculum if they are supervised by faculty and are intended to instruct students in a particular skill. [6] Under Hazelwood, student expression that occurs in the context of activities associated with instruction or curriculum can be considered school-sponsored speech and thus susceptible to reasonable regulation by the school. The reasonableness of the restriction rests on whether the school has articulated a sufficient or legitimate academic concern. The Court stated that “[i]t is only when the decision to censor a school-sponsored publication, theatrical production, or other vehicle of student expression has no valid educational purpose that the First Amendment is so directly and sharply implicate[d] as to require judicial intervention to protect students’ constitutional rights”[7]

If your institution has any further questions or concerns about education law related matters, please email Cynthia Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3753.

A special thanks to Cynthia Thomas a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for help with this post.

  1. [1] Derek Jensen, Elvis Play Generates Controversy at Utah High School, Reuters (Jan. 3, 2013) available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/04/entertainment-us-usa-elvis-utah-idUSBRE90302720130104
  2. [2] Id.
  3. [3] Ray Parker, ‘All Shook Up’ to Racy for District; Herriman High Show Cancelled, The Salt Lake Tribune (Jan. 2, 2013) available at http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/55560130-78/shook-elvis-musical-policy.html.csp
  4. [4] Jensen, supra note 1
  5. [5] 484 U.S. 260, 271(1988).
  6. [6] Id. (internal citation marks omitted)
  7. [7] Id. at 273.

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