Related Dramatist(s)
DLDF Statement

The letter, dated March 28, 2024, addressed to Dr. Jonathan Ponds, Superintendent of Montclair School District, expresses deep concern and disappointment regarding the recent shutdown of a play at Montclair High School in New Jersey. The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund highlights the lack of a proper response from school authorities, particularly Principal Jeffrey Freeman and the Montclair School District, regarding the infringement of First Amendment rights.

The shutdown occurred during a presentation of a scene from Gabriel Jason Dean's play, Rift, or White Lies, and was allegedly due to concerns over explicit content. However, the letter refutes this claim, citing prior communication between the theater company and school faculty regarding content warnings and contextualization. It criticizes Principal Freeman's statement for inaccuracies and failure to address constitutional violations.

The letter emphasizes that the school's actions not only deprived students of valuable discourse but also damaged the reputation of the theater, the play, and the playwright. The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund urges the school board to hold Principal Freeman accountable and implement procedures to prevent such censorship in the future.



March 28, 2024

Dr. Jonathan Ponds, Superintendent Montclair School District
22 Valley Rd
Montclair, NJ 07042

Dear Dr. Ponds:

The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, established by the Dramatists Guild to defend free expression in the American theatre, is shocked and dismayed by the recent shutdown of a play at Montclair High School in New Jersey. Now, a month later, this action, taken by a public school in contravention of the First Amendment, still has yet to generate an appropriate response from either the school’s principal, Jeffrey Freeman, or the Montclair School District.

The interruption and shutdown of Luna Stage’s presentation at the school of a selected scene from Gabriel Jason Dean’s new play, Rift, or White Lies, was reported on in the local press and, after prodding by the media, the school Superintendent, Dr. Jonathan Ponds, would only state that “I am aware that this incident took place, and I have full faith in the high school administration and staff who are addressing this incident with the students.” His faith, however, was misplaced because, ten days after the shutdown, Principal Freeman finally made a statement. But, instead of accepting responsibility and announcing procedures to avoid such censorship in the future, he blamed the debacle on the theater for not informing the school of the play’s “explicit and violent description of sexual assault as well as misogynistic and homophobic language,” which he claimed was the reason for stopping the presentation in mid- scene.

The problems with Principal Freeman’s unsatisfactory statement are so numerous, it is difficult to know where to begin.

Let’s start with the fact that his statement is untrue. There is a paper trail proving that Luna Stage’s director had been in contact with a dozen members of the school faculty and had provided many of them with a synopsis of each scene of the play, along with a list of its mature themes, a content advisory, and links to supporting materials to help teachers contextualize the play for their students, including a lesson plan on white supremacy. In fact, in the director’s very first communication with the faculty, she described the play as engaging in “dangerous but necessary conversations across the political divide.” Further, before the performance began that morning, the director made a statement from the stage that provided the audience with another content warning. So, Freeman’s assertion that the school was somehow insufficiently aware of the play’s content seems a cynical ploy to dodge responsibility and shift blame.

Then there is Freeman’s misleading description of the play, claiming it contained “explicit and violent descriptions” and “misogynistic and homophobic language”. Does an imprisoned white supremacist, with a history of being sexually abused, say some things that are upsetting? I would certainly hope those things would be upsetting to any rational audience. But had the scene not been stopped, those words would have been put in a context that challenged and refuted his views.

Not only did the administration prevent the play from providing context, they themselves failed to provide the students and faculty with any context prior to the presentation, a strategy recommended by the theater company. We even understand that some students in attendance were allowed to come in late, after the pre-show warnings, and some of them didn’t even know that they were seeing a play!

Furthermore, Principal Freeman’s statement failed to acknowledge the school’s violation of the First Amendment or suggest how he would deal with the resulting legal liability. While high school students are minors, they do not surrender their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door. And when a teacher climbed on that stage to stop the play because they heard words or ideas they were afraid of, or that the administration was afraid of, they were violating not only the rights of the author and theater company to speak, but the rights of the audience to hear. The safety of the students wasn’t being jeopardized...their rights were. And by denying those rights, the administration has exposed itself and the district to claims of constitutional violations.

To the extent the safety and well-being of the students may have been endangered by hearing certain words or ideas, it was solely as a result of the school’s behavior, not the content of the play. The school failed to prepare students for the presentation and then, when the play was abruptly stopped without explanation, they denied everyone the catharsis of seeing the hateful views challenged and refuted.

After the scene’s interruption, the actors offered to discuss the issues raised by the play with the students but were prevented from doing so by the school. All that the theater company could do at that point was offer all the students and faculty free tickets to see the entire play at Luna Stage. By making that offer, the theater was attempting to mitigate the damage caused by the school... damage done not only to those who were present for the shutdown but to the reputation of the theater, the play, and the playwright.

On behalf of the unfairly branded theater company, the play, and the playwright, as well as the faculty, the students, and their families left angry and confused by the school’s hysterical overreaction to words they thought they heard that Monday morning, we ask that the school board hold Principal Freeman to account for his actions and require him to establish procedures so that such censorious tactics are not used again in your district.

You may have thought it was time to move on but, as long as you fail to act, this issue remains unaddressed and unforgotten.


Ralph Sevush
Treasurer/Executive Director
The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund

David Cantor, Executive Director, Communications and Community Engagement Latifah Jannah, Coordinator, Community, Parent and Student Engagement Gretchen Devinsky, President, Montclair PTA Council

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