Spielberg Finally Convinced to Leave BSA!
by Margaret Downey
GREATER PHILADELPHIA STORY-March 2001
Many readers of The Greater Philadelphia Story (newsletter of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia)
know that for nearly eight years I have been trying to convince Oscar-winning producer and director Steven Spielberg
to dissociate himself from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).
The plea began in 1993 with a simple letter explaining my concern that Spielberg was listed as a member
of the BSA's National Advisory Board. My letter was graciously received and it led to an invitation to visit Spielberg
at his office.
Valerie Randall (the mother of twin boys who were denied BSA membership in California) and I met with Spielberg's
personal assistant and publicist Marvin Levy for approximately one hour in 1993. Kris Kelley, Spielberg's public
relations director, was also present. Spielberg was detained in filming and could not be present as planned.
It was a productive meeting. Valerie and I left with high hopes that our message of concern and the evidence
we presented would convince Spielberg to denounce BSA membership policies as morally wrong. Needless to say, it
did not work. Neither did years of telephone calls, correspondence, and updates. Nothing 'worked' until this year.
During an April 16, 2001 media interview Spielberg said, "The last few years in Scouting have deeply
saddened me to see the Boy Scouts of America actively and publicly participating in discrimination. It's a real
With that Spielberg announced that he had decided to quit the advisory board of the Boy Scouts of America.
He has been a member of the advisory board for ten years. Spielberg had also donated money to fund camps, helped
to write the guidelines for a cinematography merit badge and was honored by the Scouts several years ago at the
group's quadrennial jamboree. He is also featured prominently in promotional material for the group. All that has
come to an end thanks to Spielberg's consideration of the ethics involved in supporting a group that practices
Spielberg said he will continue to encourage the group to "end this intolerance and discrimination
once and for all."
Even though Spielberg did not specifically name the discrimination against gays as the reason for his departure,
the press gave it that spin in the headlines they chose and the legal background they provided in the text of their
articles. The Atheist issue was never even mentioned.
During the eight years of contact with Levy we developed a nice friendship. He was very reassuring that
Spielberg was sensitive to the Atheist position.
My January 2001 call for a letter writing campaign to Spielberg may have made a big difference. According
to Levy, Spielberg was very impressed with the content in every letter. He received about fifty letters from the
Atheist community and read them all. I was curious to know if the letters created the tipping point for Spielberg.
During a telephone conversation I had with Levy shortly after Spielberg's public announcement, he disclosed that
the tipping point came from the mere accumulation of information about BSA bigotry. Spielberg could not be a party
to it any longer.
Just before Levy and I talked, his secretary told me that the entire studio was pleased with Spielberg's
announcement. I told her the same thing I told Levy'Spielberg's announcement is long overdue.
I suppose I should be more understanding about the length of time Spielberg took to make his decision.
He is after all an Eagle Scout and he gives credit to his Scouting experience for having encouraged his interest
Levy was quoted as saying, "Steven hoped the policy would change. Spielberg is the single biggest
booster of the Boy Scouts you could imagine...it even gave him a start on his career."
It would have been most helpful, however, if early on people who are respected members of the community
would have demanded a change in BSA policy. Instead, the issue moved all the way to the Supreme Court and no-one
came out a winner. BSA is still feeling the repercussions of having to declare itself a 'private' organization
(with the right to set its own standards of membership) and the Atheist and gay communities are still being treated
like second class citizens.
I will compliment Spielberg on having the courage to send out a press release and agree to be interviewed
about the subject. This public disclosure was helpful in shining a light on BSA prejudice once again.
In one interview Spielberg said, "I thought the Boy Scouts stood for equal opportunity and I have
consistently spoken out publicly and privately against intolerance and discrimination based on ethnic, religious,
racial and sexual orientation. Once scouting opens its doors to all who desire the same experience that so fully
enriched me as a young person, I will be happy to reconsider a role on the advisory board."
Levy also spoke to the media. On April 16 he said that Spielberg's role on the advisory board was purely
an informal one, but when people started seeing his name attached to the group, they assumed he supported the Boy
Scouts' policies. Levy also stated that the director is against any organization that discriminates against gays
or any other group.
I will miss my conversations with Levy. When we talked we discussed many social issues that affect freedom
of expression, freedom of choice, and freedom from religious intrusion. It pleased me to hear Levy tell me how
much he respected me and admired my courage.
I'm happy to have taken part in finally convincing Spielberg to stop sitting on the fence. But I really
think the credit for creating the actual tipping point should be given to the many people who took the time to
write to Spielberg.
Thank you one and all.