Sophont
Saturday, March 13, 2004
 
Cluestick Needed
Sun-Sentinel The play praises patriotism, but the judges only saw teens cutting up an American flag.

It was enough to disqualify Archbishop McCarthy High students from a competition early this week for their performance of The Children's Story. In the play, first published in 1963 by Shogun author James Clavell, third-graders in a classroom in a United States that has been defeated by a powerful enemy, presumably Communist, cut the flag into pieces. Their new teacher tells them if the flag is so good, everyone should get a piece and tells them to hand out the shreds. It's a message about the dangers of mindless political indoctrination.

"The play is actually pro-American," said Erin Fragetta, 15, a sophomore at the southwest Broward County school who worked on the production. "It was intended to be an anti-communist message, and the judges just turned it around on us."

Zac Ensign, who acted in the play, added: "People just didn't look at what we were doing for what it was. We never intended for this to be a malicious gesture."

McCarthy was competing against 10 troupes from Broward public and private high schools at the Florida State Thespians District 13 one-act play competition at Nova High on Monday and Tuesday.

After receiving complaints about the flag cutting, co-chairman Melody Wicht, who teaches drama at Pembroke Pines Charter High, disqualified the McCarthy team.

"Some people came to me after the play and complained about the performance," Wicht said. "So I looked into it."

Wicht said she based her decision on Florida Statute 876.52, which says "Whoever publicly mutilates, defaces or tramples with intent to insult any flag ... of the United States shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree."

"I tried to stay as objective as possible as they performed," Wicht said. "My problem was that they took an American flag off the flagpole and cut it into pieces. They were disqualified based on Florida law."

Jim Usher, from American Heritage School in Plantation, one of the three judges, said while he was "grossly offended" by the flag cutting, he didn't base his rating of the play on it. He gave the play a fair rating -- the lowest -- based on overall performance, he said.

Wicht said until she hears otherwise, the disqualification will stand.

But constitutional lawyers and theater buffs say Wicht may have gone too far.

"For 10 years it's been clear that these flag desecration statutes are unconstitutional," said Bruce Rogow, a Nova Southeastern University law professor specializing in constitutional law and First Amendment rights. "What's especially ironic is that this is a pro-democracy, anti-totalitarianism play, and yet they're punished for using the flag as an example of what shouldn't be done in a totalitarian society."

Rogow cited the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down such a statute in the case of Texas vs. Johnson.

Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the court's opinion that flag desecration is the ultimate expression of disagreement in a democracy.

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