Provocative humor from a marching band at halftime is old hat–that is, if you’re the Rice MOB or the Stanford band. But if you’re Beaumont Central Medical Magnet High School, being topical or funny is apparently more problematic. 

As Adam Wright of KBMT12 reported, a routine inspired by the first presidential debate’s “Big Bird’ meme blew up into a political firestorm after Central’s most recent game against Little Cypress-Mauriceville November 3. 

Beaumont ISD’s school board has since issued a statement apologizing for “any act that appeared to some as a negative message and/or a political endorsement.”

“Was this halftime show political or silly?” was the headline on the story by Lance Edwards of Texas Sports Center, which uploaded a clip to YouTube that has racked up more than 50,000 views. As Edwards summarized:

The concept was a dance off instead of a debate between Obama (young man in white shirt) and Romney (wearing mask and blue shirt).

Then Big Bird comes out and slugs Romney for his comments about Sesame Street in reference to Public Broadcasting.

Important to note:

The band director simply stated at the start of the skit “Are ya’ll going to vote this Tuesday?” – then the dance off began.

Romney danced, Obama danced, then Big Bird danced.

Big Bird slugged the Romney character.

The Central band has actually performed the routine several times, including at the October 28 Southern Regional National Championship Battle of the Bands. The Big Bird/Romney “violence” is very much in the tradition of professional wrestling, which may or may not have been a problem by itself.

“It was cute when you had Romney dancing and you had Obama dancing, to me there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a presentation of who’s running for president, but at the end when one of them gets knocked out, it just to me goes a little bit overboard,” BISD school board member Mike Neil told KBMT’s Wright.

“…The political bias is pretty clear based on the captured video,” opined Eric Ritze of the conservative site The Blaze. 

But as Stephen C Webster of Raw Story noted, “the band leader only asks, ‘Are y’all going to vote on Tuesday?’ without endorsing either candidate, and Romney and Big Bird shake and make up in the end.”

Other reactions to the band’s performance were far more inflammatory than the actual routine, except without the excuse of being entertainment.

“Racially motivated skit?” asked a post at the Reagan Coalition, while one writer at The Examiner felt compelled to note not only that Central was a predominantly African-American school, but that “more than half of Central High students reportedly receive free or reduced lunch in 2011.”

Conversely, there was this post at calling for other band boosters to support the Central students. “I don’t need to go in immense details about the area known as “the golden triangle,” opined ‘Chris.’ “But that area includes Vidor, Nederland, Orange, Beaumont, Kountze, Buna etc. Enough said…”

At the progressive Burnt Orange Report, Joe Deshotel actually agrees that the performance was inappropriate, but if so, he argues, so are the religious messages of the cheerleaders in Kountze, who have received the support of Texas Governor Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott:  

Republican officials lined up to endorse the proposition of Christian scripture on official public school football banners while promising that they would do the same for students of any belief. But, in the first major opportunity to stand up for students with differing ideals the Republican Party of Jefferson County called this latest act of student led speech a, “gross display of institutional arrogance on the part of a taxing entity”. 

In fact, a petition asking Abbott to prosecute the school district for illegal electioneering has more than one thousand signatures

“Government agencies that use tax dollars to support their programs, like school districts, are not permitted by law to influence elections,” the petition insists.

But if it were that really that simple, student newspapers couldn’t run opinion columns, and all kinds of music, art and theater would be suspect. 

“This was, to use some perspective, simply a joke in the context of a halftime show where humor is to be expected,” Frank D. LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, told the TM Daily Post via email. “It is contextually very different from, for instance, summoning everyone in the building to a mandatory school assembly where the principal tells everyone who to vote for.” He continued:

Assuming that this joke was initiated by students and not by school employees, then the school would be on shaky constitutional footing in trying to prohibit or punish it. The Supreme Court has emphasized that students — many of whom are voting age, or about to be there — are citizens and are entitled to some measure of free expression, especially if it does not disrupt school activities. Although the school has some greater latitude to disassociate itself from speech when school time and school facilities are used — and this probably qualifies as an official school event, even though it is outside the instructional day — that authority is not unlimited. Suppressing a political viewpoint is highly, highly disfavored by the courts, since political speech is exactly what the First Amendment exists to protect.

It’s conceivable that the school could have forbidden the students from engaging in political humor during the performance because of concern that their message might be mistaken for an officially sanctioned message of the school, but it’s not 100 percent clear that that prohibition would have held up if constitutionally challenged….

At the end of the day, it really would be a good idea for people to take a deep breath and apply some perspective. Not one voter’s mind was changed by a Big Bird joke delivered by teenagers as part of an entertainment event, nor, I’m sure, did the students anticipate altering anyone’s vote. They were having some fun with a nationally publicized event that’s been widely joked about, and even if we disagree with their decision and believe that a lecture is in order, a lecture — not “prosecution,” whatever that’s intended to mean — is the proportionate response.  

Given that it’s now Election Day, the fact that the skit may never be performed again is probably moot. In any case, a lecture is what Beaumont ISD board delivered. The school board’s official release (via KBMT) stated that:

While BISD leaders are confident the intentions of the band and band director were to raise awareness of voting and not support any candidate, a message has been conveyed about the importance of avoiding the appearance of physical attack and political satire that can be construed as bias.

Central High School leaders regret Campus administrators and band leaders have been instructed to thoroughly examine how students plan to express their creativity as it relates to political rhetoric.