How Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ Got a Teacher Fired
She's the teacher every kid wanted, but in the end found herself out of a job.
Jacqueline Fowler lost an appeal on Dec. 14, 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case where she disputed her termination for showing Pink Floyd's movie adaptation of The Wall to a class of Kentucky teens.
Busy completing report cards at the end of another busy year, the civics and Latin teacher quizzed her class on what movie they'd like to watch. They voted for Pink Floyd: The Wall, and she apparently showed the videotape on May 31, 1984, without prior knowledge of the dark and brutal, clearly adult-themed script, which follows a rock star's descent through a failed marriage, drug abuse, violent paranoia and a wrecked career.
A Kentucky school board deemed that inappropriate for 14-to-17-year-old students, then ended Fowler's employment. A U.S. Circuit Court ultimately sided with the board too.
That had to be a relief, at least initially, for a student of hers named Charles. Fowler had apparently relied upon the boy's description of Pink Floyd: The Wall, which he claimed to have already seen several times. Fowler asked whether it was okay for viewing at school, and he reportedly said the movie only had "one bad place in it."
Fowler was convinced. She asked only that Charles cover the television's 25-inch screen with a file folder during any scenes that might be objectionable, which would presumably include the strip-tease nudity and suggestion of oral sex found during the film's "Young Lust" segment.
Or that moment when the flowers transform into human sex organs, then copulate. Or Pink's violent self-flagellation with a straight razor. Or the children being fed into an enormous sausage machine. Even the language in between all of these scenes was apparently enough to earn an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America.
Apparently, Charlie did okay with the file folder during a morning session. There were no reported complaints. But then the school's assistant principal happened to walk into the classroom during the afternoon showing. Fowler was instructed to hand Pink Floyd: The Wall over to the superintendent and members of Board of Education of Lincoln County, who watched the film and decided to terminate her contract. They were said to have found the film to be "immoral, anti-education, anti-family, anti-judiciary and anti-police."
A 14-year teaching veteran, Fowler was a tenured employee, and that's how the case eventually made its way to the doorstep of the Supreme Court. She received a termination notice on June 19, 1984, then appeared to fight the decision during a July 10 hearing – to no avail. Fowler then filed suit, and initially gained some traction before District Judge Scott Reed in the spring of 1985.
By the point, she had hit upon an argument straight off the Billboard charts: She had a constitutional right to show The Wall, which Fowler said explored the alienating dangers of an oppressive school environment – giving it an overriding educational value. Reed, who presumably recognized that very theme in Pink Floyd's massively popular No. 1 hit single "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)," concluded that she'd been discharged for exercising protected rights under the First Amendment.
Fowler was all set for a return to work, and was even awarded back pay with interest, damages for emotional distress and reinstatement in the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System. The school board appealed, however, and a panel of Sixth Circuit judges voted 2-1 to reverse Reed's decision.
Arguing for the majority in on June 1, 1987, Judge H. Ted Milburn said the court recognized the importance of free speech in the classroom, but that it didn't apply. "Fowler's conduct in having the movie shown under the circumstances present here," he wrote, "did not constitute expression protected by the First Amendment." He added that the the film was "gross and bizarre," and "completely unsuitable for viewing by a classroom of students aged 14 to 17."
The Supreme Court presumably agreed, when they decided against taking up the matter in 1987. Still, the proceedings appeared to have revealed a Pink Floyd fan among the judiciary.
Judge Gilbert Merritt wrote the dissenting argument for the U.S. Circuit Court, and he seemed to have a firm grasp on what the fans – if not these school administrators – saw in Pink Floyd: The Wall: "The message is that unloving, overly rigid and authoritarian parents, teachers, judges and officials create disturbed individuals and societies," Merritt said. "This lack of love is the figurative 'wall' shown in the movie."
Or, in other words, "Hey, judges, leave that teacher alone."