FNL Controversy Continues, as Students and Parents Speak Back
An online petition garnered some 500 signatures by Thursday
Editor’s Note: Students quoted below have identified themselves to me by full name, class year, and connection to FNL. With one exception, their names are not used in this story at this point, since they are minors.
Please also note this story is ongoing; Patch coverage will continue.
Members of “Friday Night Live” (FNL), the Columbia High School sketch comedy club, face Saturday detention and, in some cases, will have their prom privileges revoked, according to students who received detention and two parents whose children face punishment. Further, members of the club challenge the district’s statement, released Wednesday, on last week’s events. Those students have support from a fellow student, a senior, who generated an online petition that has garnered more than 500 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.
Controversy stems from this year’s FNL performances and two skits, in particular.
The group performed on Tuesday night with plans for Thursday night and Saturday night shows. The group performs in the CHS Black Box theatre.
According to the district statement, “Prior to Thursday’s performance of Friday Night Live, students were told by the activity advisor not to perform a specific sketch, but chose to perform it anyway.”
After the Thursday night performance, district administrators cancelled the Saturday night performance, notifying the club members on Friday. Students pooled funds and changed venue; the performance took place at the Maplewood Tennis Club, rented for the evening. More than 200 people attended; proceeds from ticket sales were designated for a diabetes research charity.
While the script or video of the skit in question is unavailable, the district statement continues, “Parodying staff members in their professional capacity is part of the long-standing tradition of humor in Friday Night Live. While poking fun at professional behavior may be acceptable, it is unacceptable when the caricature invades a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy or needlessly employs racial stereotypes. Then, a line has been crossed, especially when the students were told to drop the skit.”
A CHS junior and three-year FNL member described the district statement as “inaccurate,” a concern echoed by a current sophomore member and two additional juniors. “We were asked to remove a skit about the volleyball tournament two days before the show,” said the junior in an email message, “and we complied. It was not until after our second show [Thursday] that we were asked to remove another skit. We were prepared to do so, but then our show was cancelled.”
The club members performed the challenged skit on Saturday night, “because we no longer had any affiliations with the school.” Student members of the club note that, “We consulted several lawyers, and were told that this was acceptable and in no way a violation of Columbia's code of conduct.”
On Tuesday, the date that the district released a statement, some club members told Patch, and parents confirmed, that they received “Super Saturday” detentions, all-day detention, scheduled for this Saturday. According to several FNL members, two students will have their prom privilege revoked. The CHS prom is Monday night. School ends next week.
According to the district statement, “While we do not discuss consequences for individual students, it was in the best interest of the school community to disallow a repeat performance on Saturday.”
Word of disciplinary actions spread quickly, and a petition begun by senior Dylan Reichman, who is not a member of the club, was launched on Wednesday evening. (The full text is below.) Reichman described the news of student punishments as, “shocking, and frankly, deplorable.” Further, Reichman charges that, “Members of FNL were informed of their punishments, but nothing else.” That is, he explains, and two students and a parent confirm, that students were told that they were expected to attend detention, but were not told what rule(s) they violated.
Reichman, who told Patch that he was motivated to act by what he sees as a “lack of transparency” and concerns about setting a “troubling and frightening precedent” on the part of the administration.
FNL has been part of the CHS club roster for some 40 years, and the club is supervised by two faculty advisors. While the shows are generally sold out, there is no unanimity on its content. This year’s show has been described to Patch variously as “offensive” and “racist” and “hilariously clever.” Besides the controversial skits, the show featured a sketch that spoofed book clubs; another that parodied the CHS group SafeRides by comparing it to a game show; and a sketch that poked fun at “One percenters,” according to students who attended or performed in the show.
While the school and district administration are limited by confidentiality rules, FNL students and parents have been vocal in their defense of the group. They plan a protest gathering; Patch will release details when they become available.
This is an ongoing situation. Patch will update this story, or post another, as information becomes available.
Text of the petition
To Dr. Osborne, Dr. Lilly, the members of the Columbia High School Administration and the members of the SOMSD Board of Education:
For years, Friday Night Live has been an integral part of the Columbia High School student body. The group provides everyone with a laugh, and often helps to appropriately ease the tension surrounding issues within the school. Above all, FNL has been successful in bringing the student body together via comedic relief from the often hectic lives of high school students.
It is no secret that comedy occasionally takes a step over the line and offends people. FNL, like all other comedic troupes, is certainly susceptible to this pitfall. In order to avoid offending the varied student body of CHS, FNL worked closely with two faculty advisors this year, and have done so in years past. Additionally, they took skits that could have been deemed as offensive to other members of the CHS community to other teachers for review and even removed a few skits as per the wishes of those with whom they consulted.
Simply put, to ensure that all members of the CHS community would be able to enjoy their performance without feeling hurt or offended, the members of FNL acted in a mature, adult-like manner, for which they should be commended. Despite the maturity displayed by the members of FNL, they were still the subject of intense criticism, having one member of the faculty go so far as to offer extra credit for students who would video tape the performance.
Additionally, this same member was one of those consulted prior, and chose to resort to ignominy. The news of punishment for some of the members of FNL is shocking, and frankly, deplorable. These students followed all protocol to ensure that no one would be offended. Additionally, considering that this protocol was followed, punishing these students for their conduct is in direct opposition to their freedom of expression.
As such, the reasons behind these punishments can plausibly be ascertained to be based on the personal bias of those who are dictating the terms of the punishments, not based off of solving the perceived problem. Members of FNL were informed of their punishments, but nothing else. Attempts to contact administrators were unilaterally denied or ignored, yet an ill-informed statement was released to the public before there was a dialogue with the parties involved. The lack of professionalism and respect displayed by the district is frankly disheartening.
The statement, in part, reads, “Prior to Thursday’s performance of Friday Night Live, students were told by the activity advisor not to perform a specific sketch, but chose to perform it anyway.” This event, according to those involved in FNL, never occurred. Additionally, the statement charges that, “it is unacceptable when the caricature needlessly employs racial stereotypes,” ostensibly in regards to the “Couples Therapy” skit which poked fun at teachers.
This assertion is simply an extreme misinterpretation of the sketch. In short, the ignorance and unprofessionalism displayed by the administration throughout this process reflects in the punishments given to the members of the cast. Their punishments are unwarranted, and should be rescinded promptly.
The following signatures represent those in the Maplewood-South Orange community, and many people outside of the community who have taken interest in this cause, who agree to the above expressed opinions in principle, and who call for the punishments given to members of Friday Night Live to be rescinded. Additionally, no members of FNL have been permitted to sign this petition in order to maintain objectivity. This petition is on behalf of the community to support the members of FNL and to condemn the precedent that has been sent by the administration’s actions.