Censorship - Social Studies - Connect

Analysing Censorship through the Scopes Trial

“Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee, is a play based on the Scopes Trial (aka “Monkey Trial”) of 1925.

This drama is often misunderstood as a trial about evolution and creationism; in actuality, the play’s adaptation and the trial’s cornerstone were about freedom of speech. In the “Production Notes by the Playwrights,” Lawrence and Lee state:

“INHERIT THE WIND” is not about the theory of evolution versus the literal interpretation of the Bible. It assaults those who would constrict any human being’s right to think, to teach, to learn. Our major theme is “the dignity of the individual human mind.”

Many of the trial scenes in the play and film are taken directly from the trial transcripts. While the play is not available in e-text form, one of the most important trial scenes from the film (1960) is available online at American Rhetoric: "Henry Drummond Questions Matthew Brady on the Scientific Authority of the Bible."

Additional information about The Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee is available in Tennessee vs John Scopes, The “Monkey Trial” 1925, a website created by Professor Douglas Linder from University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. It contains a remarkable amount of historical information and primary documents about the trial.

Before reading the play or seeing the film, or in lieu of play or film:

If your school is a one-to-one school, provide students with the link to Prof. Linder’s website. Otherwise, you will need to reserve your media center or computer lab for two (2) days.

  1. Arrange the students into six (6) small groups to complete research on the following topics and people. Students should create PowerPoint presentations that answer the questions for their assigned topics. Provide copies of the PDF PowerPoint Rubric for students as well.
  2. Group #1: Charles Darwin and Evolution

      • Who is Darwin and what is he famous for?
      • What four theories did he come up with about evolution?
      • Why did (and do) so many people oppose his theories?
      • What did he supposedly say on his deathbed and how was it refuted?

    Group #2: The Scopes Trial

      • What is the nickname of this trial? Why?
      • What was the Butler Act Tennessee Statute?
      • Who is George Rappleyea and what was his interest in the trial and in Dayton?
      • How did the ACLU decide to challenge the Butler Act?
      • What was the defense’s major argument in the case?
      • Why did Clarence Darrow examine William Jennings Bryan and on what topic of expertise did Darrow focus?
      • What was the jury’s verdict?

    Group #3: William Jennings Bryan

      • Who is Bryan? When was he born?
      • What was Bryan known for and what are some of his accomplishments?
      • Why did Bryan take the role of prosecution in the Scopes Trial?
      • When did he die and how was it related to the trial?

    Group #4: Clarence Darrow

      • Where and when was Darrow born?
      • As a lawyer, what kinds of cases did he tend to take?
      • Who or what kinds of people did he usually defend?
      • Why did he take the Scopes case?

    Group #5: ACLU

      • What is the mission of the ACLU and when was it founded?
      • How did the ACLU recruit for the Scopes case?
      • Why did it want to challenge the Butler Act in particular?
      • What was the ACLU’s plan for defense?

    Group #6: John T. Scopes

      • What was Scope’s job before the trial?
      • What was his role during the trial?
      • What happened when he took the stand?
      • What did he do after the trial?
  3. Students should take notes on the PowerPoint presentations and information presented in class.
  4. Discuss the presentations and information with the students—what was surprising, what was particularly interesting, who did they find to be the most sympathetic, etc.? For example, many students may be surprised that the trial was staged in order to bring attention and commerce to Dayton, Tennessee. Others may be surprised that Clarence Darrow defended people that he sometimes knew had committed crimes, but he still felt they deserved a fair trial.

    At this point, the class may begin the play or watching the film. (If there is not enough time to read the play or view the film, see #6 below). It is important to inform the students that some of the characters in the play are derived from people involved in the 1925 trial. For example:

      • John Scopes = Bertram Cates
      • E. K. Hornbeck = H. L. Mencken
      • Henry Drummond = Clarence Darrow
      • Matthew Harrison Brady = William Jennings Bryan

    If there is not enough time to read the entire play, the class can read and analyze one of the most significant parts of the trial, the examination of Brady (Bryan) by Drummond (Darrow), included in the "American Rhetoric: Movie Speech from Inherit the Wind - Henry Drummond Questions Matthew Harrison Brady on the Bible."

    Students should first develop a working definition of "freedom of expression" that includes every mode or medium they might use. This should be done in small groups and then shared with the whole class to finalize the definition.

    Follow up with a discussion using the following questions:

      • What influences how we think?
      • What regulations, rules, or restrictions affect even our ability to think? For example, how can we have freedom if what we are being told and taught is restricted by authority figures?
      • Do you think what we are taught changes over time? Who decides when it is okay to think something new or different from the past?
      • What do you think this sentence saying? "...it was a time and place when minority opinions were suspect."
      • Does it apply to today, especially since 9/11?
      • Why might minority opinions be seen as "suspect," and how might such suspicions limit one's freedom of expression or a minority group's freedom of expression?
      • As Drummond questions Brady about the ability to think and act, Brady states, "Each man is a free agent!" How is a man's or woman's agency a part of their freedom of expression?
      • At the end of the play, Drummond defends Brady and the freedom to think by angrily pointing out that, "Brady has the same rights as Cates: the right to be wrong!" What is Drummond arguing in this quotation--what does being "right" or "wrong" have to do with freedom of expression or freedom of speech?
      • In this regard, does freedom have a cost or a price, and what is that cost? Who pays the cost? Who reaps the benefits?