North Carolina School Board Votes to Keep ‘The House of the Spirits’ in Curriculum

Last October, a parent at Watauga High School in Boone, North Carolina asked the local school board to remove Isabel Allende’s internationally-renowned The House of the Spirits from the curriculum. After making its way through a multi-step county review process, last week the school board voted 3-2 to uphold the teaching of the book.

The fight to keep the book in the curriculum was backed by many supporters – including the author herself. In a letter to the Watauga County Board of Education, Isabel Allende wrote,

Banning books is a common practice in police states, Like Cuba or North Korea…but I did not expect it in our democracy.

PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan also spoke out against censorship to the school board. In his letter, Keegan wrote:

We trust that as educators you will uphold the right of all students in Watauga County to receive a competitive, rigorous education free from censorship. While individual parents have every right to decline reading material for their own children, they should not be allowed to censor the curricula for all students in the county.

The House of the Spirits is not the first book PFAW Foundation has fought to protect. In addition to speaking out about Allende’s novel, in the past year PFAW Foundation has advocated against censorship attempts aimed at Invisible Man, Neverwhere, and The Bluest Eye.
 

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NC Committee Upholds Teaching of Challenged Allende Novel

After Isabel Allende’s internationally-renowned novel The House of the Spirits was challenged by a parent this October, PFAW Foundation wrote to members of the Watauga County, North Carolina Board of Education, urging them not to remove the book from the county’s high school curriculum. Now, following a sustained outcry at both the local and national level – including from Allende herself – a county appeal committee has unanimously voted to uphold the teaching of the book.

Last week’s vote was the second round of review the book has faced. Parent Chastity Lesesne appealed an earlier decision of a school committee to retain the book as part of the curriculum, and it is not yet known if she will appeal the most recent decision. If she were to do so, the Watauga County Board of Education would issue a final decision.

Community members in Watauga County have been speaking out against censorship of the book, including through a teach-in earlier this month at Appalachian State University. Lynn Schlenker, president of the Watauga High School parent teacher organization, told the School Library Journal that she was concerned about potential “ramifications on all curriculum at the high school.” Schlenker noted,

We need to explore ideas on how to provide the framework for book challenges in a way that doesn’t trample the rights of the other students.

PFAW Foundation

Isabel Allende Fights Against Banning of Her Own Book

When the teaching of Isabel Allende’s internationally renowned novel The House of the Spirits was challenged in a North Carolina school district last month, advocates from all corners spoke out in its defense, including PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan and North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti. Now, Isabel Allende herself has joined the conversation.

Yesterday the School Library Journal reported that Allende has mailed a letter, along with copies of her book, to the Watauga County school board, superintendent, and the principal of Watauga High School.

After acknowledging that being in the position of defending her own book is “unusual and awkward,” Allende points out in her letter that The House of the Spirits is “considered a classic of Latin American literature and it is taught in high schools, colleges, and universities in all Western countries, including the USA for more than two decades.” She expresses concern about the practice of book censorship in general:

Banning of books is a common practice in police states, like Cuba or North Korea, and by religious fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, but I did not expect it in our democracy.

Allende’s letter comes as the book undergoes a multi-step review process in the county. Last month an advisory committee comprised of teachers, students, and parents voted unanimously not to remove the book from the curriculum, but that decision has been appealed.

PFAW Foundation

Remembering Bobbie Handman

Barbara “Bobbie” Handman, a former Vice President of PFAW and PFAW Foundation, died on Thursday. For years, Bobbie’s creative energy and fierce commitment to the First Amendment shaped the organizations’ free expression work from New York City, where she was based. Bobbie’s long record of advocacy for free expression and the arts was recognized in 1998 when she received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton.

Hillary Clinton, Bobbie Handman, Bill Clinton

Bobbie’s years at PFAW were part of a long life of political activism. Time after time she responded to would-be censors by rallying well-known actors and writers to participate in public events that affirmed the value of artistic freedom. You can read more about Bobbie’s life and work in the obituary that appears in today’s New York Times. It ends with this quote from Norman Lear: “Bobbie was a lifelong lesson in perseverance. She made New York happen for People For the American Way. And she made everything grander. She dealt in grand.”

People For the American Way extends its heartfelt condolences to Bobbie’s husband Wynn Handman and the rest of their family.

PFAW Foundation

NM School District Restores ‘Neverwhere’ to Curriculum Following PFAW Foundation Advocacy

Last month, PFAW Foundation sent a letter to a school district review committee in Alamogordo, New Mexico urging them to reject attempts to remove Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the English curriculum. Yesterday a local television station, KRQE News 13, reported that the book will indeed be put back into the Alamogordo High School curriculum. A district spokesperson told the School Library Journal that in the review process the book was found to be “educationally suitable, balanced, and age-appropriate for high school students.”

The School Library Journal’s Karyn Peterson provides the backstory:

Use of the novel, which had been a part of the AHS English department’s curriculum for nearly 10 years, was suspended from classrooms in early October after a mother complained to the school board about what she characterized as the book’s “sexual innuendos” and “harsh” language—occurring on a single page of the 400-page novel.  The district then created a review committee and opened a public comment period...

PFAW Foundation was one of the groups that weighed in, encouraging the review committee to uphold the right of all students to “to receive a competitive, rigorous education free from censorship.”

The full text of our letter is below.

October 25, 2013

Dear Members of the Review Committee,

We urge you to reject attempts to remove Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the English curriculum.  We understand that the novel was temporarily removed from the curriculum following the complaint of a parent and will be reviewed by this committee.

Neil Gaiman, whose awards include the Newbery Medal for outstanding children’s literature, is an acclaimed author whose work has been taught in the district for many years. We recognize that school leaders often face difficult decisions that require balancing the concerns of parents with the educational development of students.  However, according to English teacher Pam Thorp’s recent letter in the Alamogordo News, the child of the parent bringing the complaint was offered alternative reading material. While parents have every right to decline reading material for their own children, they should not be allowed to censor the curricula for all students.

Many works of literature tackle mature or challenging topics. Attempting to shield high school students from challenging works robs them of the opportunity to learn from and engage with literature, and sets a dangerous precedent.

We trust that as educators you will uphold the right of all students in Alamogordo public schools to receive a competitive, rigorous education free from censorship. For over 30 years we have worked with school districts to protect students’ right to learn, and are happy to serve as a resource for you in this and any future challenges to school curricula.

Best wishes,

Michael Keegan
President, People For the American Way Foundation

PFAW Foundation

Senate hears testimony on government surveillance

The Senate held a hearing Wednesday to discuss government surveillance programs, with particular emphasis on Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and Section 702 of FISA, which have respectively served as NSA’s justifications for bulk phone records collection and online communications surveillance, and have recently been the subject of some disturbing disclosures about the extent of government intrusion into Americans’ personal lives.

Pressed on these disclosures, representatives from the DOJ, NSA, DNI, and FBI sought to defend the programs as legitimate, arguing that such intelligence-gathering is necessary to prevent terrorism; is not as novel and broad as has been reported; and is checked by the FISA Court, congressional reauthorization, and executive compliance audits.

Critics, however, contested each claim.

When FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce argued that “[e]ach and every tool is valuable [for counterterrorism],” Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) noted:

Contrary to the administration’s public claim of 54 foiled plots, for example, my own recent review of the classified list found nothing close to that number ... after receiving the classified document on plots foiled by 215, I’m far from convinced that it’s been necessary.

Further, after DOJ Deputy Attorney General James Cole pointed to the limited nature of phone database queries in 2012, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer contended:

Even if the government ran queries on only 300 unique identifiers in 2012, those searches implicated the privacy of millions of Americans … analysts are permitted to examine the call records of all individuals within three “hops” of a specific target. As a result, a query yields information not only about the individual … but about all of those separated from that individual by one, two, or three degrees. Even if one assumes, conservatively, that each person has an average of 40 unique contacts, an analyst who accessed the records of everyone within three hops of an initial target would have accessed records concerning more than two million people.

Finally, in responding to the claim that the public, through Congress, had granted authority for the surveillance through the PATRIOT Act and FISA, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) reasoned:

There’s a balancing act between security and privacy, but when almost everything is done in secret, the public has no way of knowing whether we’re getting the balance right.

And today, the balance has tipped much too far away from our fundamental freedoms. Urge Congress to repeal the PATRIOT Act.

PFAW

PFAWF: More Attention on Colorado Censorship Campaign

Last week, People For the American Way Foundation joined a campaign to fight book censorship in a Colorado school district. The censorship battle began when a group of parents launched a petition to keep Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye out of the Legacy High School curriculum. Legacy High student Bailey Cross started a counter-petition emphasizing the dangerous precedent that this censorship would set and encouraging the school district to keep the book on the approved reading list.

PFAW Foundation sent a letter to the Adams 12 Five Star School District Board of Education showing support for the student’s campaign and urging the district to reject the attempts at censorship.

The efforts of the Foundation were highlighted by the Denver Post yesterday. Staff writer Yesenia Robles wrote that the parents involved claim the book is “developmentally inappropriate” and should be kept out of the classroom.

People For the American Way Foundation disagrees. Robles reports,

"We do understand this book has themes and content that are really challenging, but that's why it should be taught," foundation spokesman Drew Courtney said. "An important role of classrooms is to help students and young adults deal with that, to have those conversations in an intelligent way in the classrooms. Offering an alternative assignment is appropriate, but banning a prize-winning novel isn't prudence. It's censorship."

See the full Denver Post article here.

PFAW Foundation

PFAW Supports House Amendment Against NSA Spying

The House will soon be considering an amendment to the Defense appropriations bill that would impose much-needed limits on the NSA's unconstitutional surveillance program that indiscriminately collects the phone records of millions of Americans.

With bipartisan sponsors Justin Amash (R-Mich) and John Conyers (D-Mich), the amendment would limit the federal government's collection of records under Section 215 of the so-called Patriot Act to those that pertain to a person or organization that is already subject to an investigation under that provision. Under current practice initiated by the Bush Administration and continued into the Obama Administration, the government engaged in bulk acquisition, collection, storage, retention, and searching of telephone communications “metadata” for all phone calls using the networks of any of the major American telecom companies.

Every 90 days, the government tells the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court that it needs the data, no one is made aware of the request, no one provides an alternative view to the court, and it reliably gives permission for the collection to continue. No search warrants are required.

PFAW is among those organizations that have filed suit in federal court against the program, arguing that it violates the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments.

The issue isn't simply whether this program stops terrorism. The issue is the type of society we want to live in, and whether we will continue to adhere to the decisions of our nation's founders that freedom is a paramount right that must be cherished. We decided in the 1790s that police cannot simply break into your home and conduct a search without a search warrant issued by a judge. Yes, it means that many crimes go unsolved, but it also means that we do not live in fear of a police state. Similarly, we adopted the First Amendment's free speech protections knowing full well that we were giving license to noxious and even harmful speech. But that is the price of freedom.

PFAW is supporting the Amash Amendment, because we support the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments.

UPDATE: When it came up for a vote by the full House on July 24, the amendment failed by only 12 votes.  The 205-217 vote showed strong support for the measure within both parties, with 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats voting in favor.  When the amendment was first introduced, many thought it would be defeated easily.  However, the close margin and significant level of bipartisan support took many by surprise, signaling that this issue is not going away.

PFAW

DOJ’s Seizure of AP Phone Records Affronts Constitutional Principles

This week, the Associated Press reported that the Department of Justice had seized two months of phone records for its editors and reporters without any prior notification to the news organization, thereby denying it the opportunity to negotiate or challenge the seizure in court.

While it's true that there are complicated issues at stake in balancing the right to privacy and First Amendment protections for the media against the government’s obligation to protect national security, the Attorney General’s office has in place its own guidelines on subpoenas of news media for evidence and testimony – guidelines that they apparently failed to follow in this case.  If true, the actions taken by the Department of Justice are beyond the pale of our Constitutional system. The right of all persons to feel secure that their privacy is protected is fundamental to our nation's character; we should pay special heed to that guarantee when it involves the freedom of the press, an essential bulwark of our democracy.

Any government requests for media records should be subject to automatic  judicial review, and whatever exceptions to that principle that may exist should be extraordinarily limited in scope. According to reports, neither was true in this instance.

In response to this revelation, the White House has appropriately reiterated its support for more robust shield laws to protect journalists from undue government intrusion. Even without those laws in place, the Department of Justice should have understood that its actions in this instance were a gross violation of important Constitutional principles.

 

PFAW

When Everything Is Partisan, Just Do What's Right

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when Republicans started complaining that President Obama's second inaugural address was too "partisan" and lacked "outreach" across the aisle. But who was left out? What did they find "partisan"? The acknowledgement of climate science? The idea that women should receive equal pay for equal work? The nod to civil rights struggles of our past and present? The hope that no American will have to wait in hours-long lines to vote? The defense of the existence of a social safety net? The determination to offer support to the victims of a historic storm and to find real answers to the epidemic of mass shootings? In the not-too-distant past, none of these would have raised eyebrows except on the very, very far right. But I guess that's the point: what was once the radical fringe is now in control of the Grand Old Party.

In many ways, Monday's inauguration ceremony was a Tea Party Republican's nightmare-come-true. The openly gay poet. The Spanish sprinkled into the benediction. The one-two-three punch of "Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall." It was the embodiment of all that the far right has tried to wall itself off from as the country begins to include more and more of the real America in its democracy.

What would have pleased this faction, short of winning the presidential election? I imagine they would have preferred a paean to the America of their imaginations -- where the founders were flawless and prescient about the right to bear assault weapons and the Constitution was delivered, amendments included, directly from God; where there are no gay people or only silent ones, where the world is not getting warmer; where there have been no struggles in the process of forging a more perfect union. This, of course, would have been its very own kind of political statement -- and one that was just rejected by the majority of American voters.

If embracing America as it is rather than as a shimmery vision of what it never was constitutes partisanship, and if it turns off people who cling to that dishonest vision, let's have more of it.

This post originally appeared at the Huffington Post.

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