Tag Archives: censorship

Your right to know: State should support student expression

Two years ago, the Fond du Lac School District unveiled new guidelines requiring administrative review and approval before the publication of any student media. The reaction by students was swift, democratic and effective.

Within days, they had publicized the change online, presented their case at a school board meeting, appeared on local media and gathered several thousand signatures on a petition calling for student publications to be returned to the students. Over the next several months, they highlighted the district’s use of these guidelines to block the publication of particular photos and information.

These efforts succeeded. The district agreed to convene a group of student journalists and educators to craft a new policy. By the next school year, the restrictive guidelines were gone.

The passion for the free flow of information and constitutional rights displayed by these students stands as a prime example of the power of a journalism education based on student responsibility and ownership. But efforts to stifle student speech remain.

Recently, a principal in Chicago censored a story about the school’s new starting time, at one point threatening to kill the publication entirely. Student journalists in Missouri were told they must submit a story about their superintendent’s resignation to the principal for editing. A student journalist in West Bend, Wisconsin, reports being barred from writing about certain topics.

And in many schools, the looming possibility of administrative overreach leads students to censor themselves, back down when challenged, or abandon student publications entirely.

This should not be happening. While schools must maintain an effective learning atmosphere, they do not have the right to suppress information they simply do not like. Court cases have made clear that students maintain their First Amendment rights of free speech at school.

Unfortunately, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier) established that schools could review and possibly restrain speech if related to legitimate educational purposes. Many school districts have over-applied this highly subjective standard.

Once a principal is allowed to pre-approve student journalism, it is inevitable that he or she will find things to change to make the expression more “positive” or more aligned with what the principal wants to say. This does not teach journalism or citizenship. It teaches that authority figures — government officials, in the case of public schools — decide what ideas can be discussed.

Since Hazelwood, eight states have passed laws clearly establishing that student publications belong to students, who are themselves responsible for deciding what to publish. North Dakota passed one such law unanimously last year, and more than 20 other states are looking to join them.

These bills, termed New Voices laws, do nothing to limit a school’s ability to prohibit illegal or harmful speech. But they do let students perfect the power of their own voices and explore the benefits of the free flow of information in a democracy.

Students in Wisconsin deserve a New Voices law of their own. The effort to do so here, known as Supporting New Voices of Wisconsin, has been getting media attention and editorial support.

In the next legislative session, we hope state lawmakers will help ensure that the rights of student journalists are clear and that schools are using student publications for student learning, rather than to promote the agenda of government officials.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Matthew Smith, a teacher at Fond du Lac High School, is a coordinator for New Voices of Wisconsin.

Bible among most challenged books on latest list

On the latest list of books most objected to at public schools and libraries, one title has been targeted nationwide, at times for the sex and violence it contains, but mostly for the legal issues it raises. The Bible.

“You have people who feel that if a school library buys a copy of the Bible, it’s a violation of church and state,” says James LaRue, who directs the Office for Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association, which released its annual 10 top snapshot of “challenged” books this week, part of the association’s “State of Libraries Report” for 2016.

“And sometimes there’s a retaliatory action, where a religious group has objected to a book and a parent might respond by objecting to the Bible.”

LaRue emphasized that the library association does not oppose having Bibles in public schools.

Guidelines for the Office for Intellectual Freedom note that the Bible “does not violate the separation of church and state as long as the library does not endorse or promote the views included in the Bible.”

The ALA also favors including a wide range of religious materials, from the Quran to the Bhagavad Gita to the Book of Mormon.

LaRue added that the association does hear of complaints about the Quran, but fewer than for the Bible.

The Bible finished sixth on a list topped by John Green’s “Looking for Alaska,” which has been cited for “offensive language” and sexual content. The runner-up, challenged for obvious reasons, was E L James’ raunchy romance “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“I Am Jazz,” a transgender picture book by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, was No. 3, followed by another transgender story, Susan Kuklin’s “Beyond Magenta.”

The list also includes Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” Craig Thompson’s “Habibi,” Jeanette Winter’s “Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan” and David Leviathan’s “Two Boys Kissing,” with one objection being that it “condones public displays of affection.”

“Many of the books deal with issues of diversity,” LaRue said. “And that often leads to challenges.”

The association bases its list on news reports and on accounts submitted from libraries and defines a challenge as a “formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.”

Just 275 incidents were compiled by the ALA, down from 311 the year before and one of the lowest on record.

The ALA has long believed that for every challenge brought to its attention, four or five others are not reported. LaRue says the association does not have a number for books actually pulled in 2015.

Challenged works in recent years have ranged from the Harry Potter novels to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Discussing recent events, LaRue said he was concerned by legislation that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently vetoed forcing schools to warn parents if their children will be assigned books with sexually explicit content. A Fairfax County mother had protested the use of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Beloved” in her son’s high school senior class. The 1987 novel set in the post-Civil War era includes scenes depicting sex, rape and bestiality and has appeared occasionally on the ALA challenged books list.

“We see the danger of censorship moving from the school library into the English classroom,” LaRue said.

On the Web


For the record: Journalism groups challenge government press restrictions

The 49th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act arrived this summer with dozens of newspaper groups challenging policies and orders keeping government affairs out of the sunshine and shielded from public review.

In mid-August, 53 journalism groups urged President Barack Obama to end federal press office restrictions that prevent reporters from talking to government employees. Ethics organizations, press clubs and newspaper groups, including the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, of which WiG is a member, made the unified plea.

Journalism groups also are challenging lengthy delays in responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, reports of missing documents and data and censorship of material.

“The public has a right to be alarmed by these constraints — essentially a form of censorship — that have surged at all levels of government in the past few decades,” the groups wrote to the president. “Surveys of journalists and public information officers demonstrate that the restraints have become pervasive across the country; that some PIOs admit to blocking certain reporters when they don’t like what is written; and that most Washington reporters say the public is not getting the information it needs because of constraints.”

Obama, on his first day in office in 2009, vowed to make his administration “the most open and transparent in history.”

But, in addition to the federal attacks on whistleblowers, many journalists and press groups have complained about secrecy.

The Freedom of Information Act, the nation’s widely respected open records law, provides the tools for people to compel the government to turn over federal records at zero or minimal cost. Legal reasons for withholding information are to protect national security, personal privacy and business secrets.

The Associated Press, in an analysis of federal data earlier this year, reported that the Obama administration has set a record for censoring government files or denying access to materials under FOIA. At the end of 2014, the backlog of unanswered FOIA requests had grown by 55 percent to 200,000. The government responded to 647,142 FOIA requests and either censored or denied access in 39 percent of those cases. In 215,584 cases, the government said it couldn’t find records.

What can watchdog journalists learn from FOIA requests? The AP obtained records that revealed efforts to restrict airspace during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. In another investigation, the AP learned that the FBI was pressuring police departments to keep secret the development of a new surveillance device called Stingray. And the AP’s first FOIA request for email correspondence from Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state was filed more than five years ago.

And what is the danger of suppressing information? The journalism coalition lobbying for change cited the recent review that found a culture of mishandling dangerous pathogens at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a staff fearful of revealing incidents. Last year, the FDA revealed that it had held smallpox in uninventoried storage for decades, but employees aware of this were forbidden to talk with reporters.

The journalism groups, in the letter to the president, said, “You can act now, before the end of your term, to shift the federal government away from secrecy toward transparency and accountability. When you first entered office you pledged to become the most transparent president in history. It is not too late to fulfill that promise.”

Just weeks before the coalition made its request of the White House, Wisconsin news operations were coalescing against a controversial push by Republicans to gut the state’s open records law. Language snuck into the proposed 2015-17 state budget would have blocked the public from reviewing nearly all records created by state and local lawmakers — even drafts of bills and material deemed part of the “deliberative process” of crafting legislation.

Did you know?

Each year, usually the second week of March, newspapers and other media organizations across the United States observe Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community. The next Sunshine Week observance is March 13-19, 2016.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Vatican gets embroiled in Italy’s ‘banned books’ fray

The Vatican has gotten embroiled in a modern-day, secular version of the Index of Banned Books.

The Holy See press office had to set the record straight on Aug. 28 after the Italian media interpreted a formulaic blessing by Pope Francis of a lesbian children’s book publisher and her partner as an endorsement of their same-sex relationship.

Author Francesca Pardi had written to Francis in June complaining about how her books — some of which deal with children growing up with gay, single and divorced parents — had been maligned by Catholic groups and politicians.

A half-dozen of her titles were among the 49 titles that Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro recently banned from public preschools pending a review of their appropriateness because they deal with gender issues.

Thinking that Francis might appreciate the books’ inclusive message, Pardi sent him copies of her 30 titles, explaining that they had nothing to do with “gender theory” or even sex but merely conveyed a message of tolerance.

A few weeks ago, an official in the Vatican’s secretariat of state, Monsignor Peter Wells, sent her a note in Francis’ name thanking her for the gesture, blessing her and her partner, and encouraging her to continue with her “activities in the service to young generations and the diffusion of authentic human and Christian values.”

Pardi says she didn’t take the letter by any means to be a papal endorsement of her lifestyle — she and her partner have four children together — but the Italian media interpreted it as such, prompting the Vatican to step in.

In a statement, the Vatican’s deputy spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said the letter made clear that Francis was encouraging Pardi to pursue activities consistent with Christian values.

“The blessing of the pope at the end of the letter was directed to the person, not at any possible teachings that are not in line with the doctrine of the church on gender theory, which hasn’t changed a bit as the Holy Father has repeated even recently,” he said.

One of the “banned” titles, “Little Egg,” tells the story of an egg about to hatch that goes out in search of a family, and encountering a variety of different ones — two mothers, two fathers, single parents, bi-racial parents, “traditional” parents — concludes that any one of them would be great.

The review of the “banned books” by Venice’s mayor sparked outrage among gay and human rights groups, with sometimes Venice resident Elton John calling Brugnaro “boorishly bigoted.”

Venice’s review harked back to the Vatican’s own Index of Prohibited Books, the 16th century list of books deemed heretical by the Roman Inquisition. The Vatican in 1966 officially removed the ban from its law books.

Elton John: Mayor supporting removal of children’s books is ‘boorishly bigoted’

Elton John has slammed Venice’s conservative mayor over moves to remove books from public preschools dealing with gender issues and featuring same-sex couples.

The singer, who has a home in Venice, Italy, called Mayor Luigi Brugnaro “boorishly bigoted” in an Instagram post following the removal of some books from preschools pending an evaluation of their appropriateness. 

Brugnaro shot back on Twitter, saying, “The challenge is to give real resources for saving (hash)Venice,” adding in dialect: “Let’s get to facts, out with the cash (hash)Elton John.”

The mayor in a statement last month voiced reservations about several books with LGBT themes.

He said it would be decided over the school break who would make the selections “to avoid further diatribes.”

Principal blocks lesbian student from wearing tux to prom

A gay student in Louisiana says she is going to skip her prom because the school principal won’t let her wear a tuxedo.

Claudettia Love, a senior and one of the top students at Carroll High in Monroe, said she was planning on going to the prom with a group of friends, but now they are staying away.

“I told my mom, `They’re using me. They put me in all these honors and advanced placement classes so I can take all of these tests and get good grades and better the school, but when it’s time for me to celebrate the fact that I’ve accomplished what I need to accomplish and I’m about to graduate, they don’t want to let me do it, the way I want to,'” she told The News-Star.

The decision is part of the school’s dress code and not anything personal, principal Patrick Taylor told The News-Star.

Monroe City School Board president Rodney McFarland disagreed.

“Banning her from her prom just because of what she wants to wear – that’s discrimination,” he said. “As far as I know there is no Monroe City School Board policy saying what someone has to wear to attend the prom. You can’t just go making up policies.”

He said he planned to ask Superintendent Brent Vidrine to talk to Taylor.

Love’s mother, Geraldine Jackson, said Taylor told her faculty members said they wouldn’t supervise the April 24 prom if girls wore tuxes. “That’s his exact words. `Girls wear dresses and boys wear tuxes, and that’s the way it is,'” she said.

Last year, Love was one of a group of students presented in a Monroe City School Board meeting as part of the school’s high achieving medical magnet program. She will represent the school at the annual Scholars’ Banquet, an event for the top students in Ouachita Parish, and has a full scholarship to Jackson State University.

Bush, Reagan, Nixon books burned at Washington library

Biographies of George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon accounted for most of the dozen books burned in a fire at the main public library in Tacoma, Washington.

However, library workers don’t think the motive for the Oct. 18 fire was political. It was set in the American History section.

KING reported that Sharon Sailly of Tacoma pleaded not guilty on Oct. 20 to an arson charge and was ordered jailed on $500,000 bail.

Court papers say she poured lighter fluid on the books and started the fire because she had an issue with a librarian.

The fire forced about 250 patrons to evacuate the downtown library. 

Putting banned books on the reading list

Banned Books Week 2014 provides the material for another chapter in the campaign against censorship.

The week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers and readers — and the civil rights community to celebrate the freedom to read and to challenge efforts to restrict access to books.

Banned Books Week is observed Sept. 21–27 with films, lectures, seminars, contests, protests and, perhaps most importantly, the reading of banned or challenged books. One such “reading of banned books,” presented by the ACLU of Wisconsin, takes place at 5 p.m. on Sept. 24 at the Stonefly Brewery, 735 E. Center St., Milwaukee. Other events in Wisconsin were being planned as WiG went to press.

Additionally, readers can participate in a virtual read-out by posting videos to the Banned Books Week channel on YouTube.

Wondering what to read?

• The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression tracked challenges to more than 300 books in the past year. The most recent was an effort to stop students involved in a summer reading program at a high school in Pensacola, Florida, from reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a New York Times best-seller and finalist for the Hugo Award for best novel. It’s a story about four teenagers who defend themselves against the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack in San Francisco.

• Each year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom records hundreds of attempts by individuals and groups to remove books from library shelves or classrooms. Some of the most challenged classics: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, George Orwell’s 1984 and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

• The most challenged authors of the century include Ellen Hopkins, Aldous Huxley, Harper Lee, Peter Parnell, Robert Cormier, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Katherine Paterson, Maya Angelou, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and Judy Blume. Five of Blume’s books are on the list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999: Forever, Blubber, Tiger Eyes, Deenie and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.


Banned Books Week: www.bannedbooksweek.org

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Tree toilets – art to one, rubbish to others

Code enforcement officers in Colorado are agreeing with neighbors who say several toilets hanging from a tree in a community near Colorado Springs are not art.

El Paso County Code Enforcement Officer Gayle Jackson is disputing claims by an unidentified homeowner who says the toilets are works of art and will be used as bird feeders. The man says he will take the commodes down, but he still plans to keep them on his property. So far, no citations have been issued.

According to KRDO-TV, the county says the rubbish ordinance is designed to protect the public health, safety and welfare of citizens by eliminating and controlling rubbish in the county.

S.C. House refuses to restore college cuts for books dealing with homosexuality

The South Carolina House refused this week to back down from plans to punish two public colleges in the budget for assigning freshmen to read books dealing with homosexuality.

The House rejected multiple attempts to restore $52,000 cut from the College of Charleston in the state budget, and $17,142 cut from the University of South Carolina Upstate. Those are the amounts the universities spent on books assigned to their incoming freshmen last summer. The efforts failed by votes of 69-41, 70-43, 71-40 and 71-38.

Opponents argued the cuts, which reduce what the colleges can spend from their own revenue sources, censor and micromanage college decisions.

When it comes to public colleges, legislators should be debating funding and building construction, not “pushing our own moral agenda on these institutions of higher learning,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.

“Are we saying we don’t trust the college students enough to expose them to something they may not have seen before? We can’t let you read anything other than what we believe?” she asked. “What about the notion of freedom to have different views? Isn’t this what we go all over the globe fighting for?”

College of Charleston students read “Fun Home,” a book by Alison Bechdel that describes her childhood with a closeted gay father and her own coming out as a lesbian. USC Upstate assigned “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” referring to South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show, for a freshmen course that included lectures and other out-of-classroom activities meant to spark discussions about the book.

Rep. Garry Smith, whose subcommittee made the reductions, said he wanted to make a point after college officials declined to give students an option to read something else. He said he wouldn’t oppose the books if they were part of an elective course. He called it promotion of a lifestyle.

“Freedom comes with responsibility. These universities did not act responsibly,” said Smith, R-Simpsonville.

Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, said opponents of the cuts argue for a diversity of ideas but don’t want to consider conservatives’ viewpoint. After House Speaker Bobby Harrell rejected Smith’s suggestions to project illustrations from “Fun Home” on the House screen, Nanney said, “It’s not appropriate to even put up in this room but we’re giving it to 18-year-old kids?”

The votes came as the House opened floor debate on the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The spending plan commits $7 billion in state taxes. The state budget would total $24 billion, up from $22.5 billion this year, when including all revenue sources, such as federal money, fees, fines, lottery profits and tuition at public colleges.

While other sections of the budget passed quickly with no discussion, the college cuts tied up debate for hours. Debate on other sections will continue Tuesday.

College of Charleston President George Benson said the university is committed to academic freedom, and any university education must include the opportunity for students to engage controversial ideas. Any attempt by legislators to tie funding to what books are taught threatens the credibility of all of South Carolina’s public colleges, he said.

“Our students are adults, and we will treat them as such,” Benson said. “Faculty, not politicians, ultimately must decide what textbooks are selected and how those materials are taught.”