Before it adjourned for the summer in late June, the Supreme Court issued a series of important decisions, or non-decisions, on affirmative action, immigration, abortion, and other subjects. As with the Court’s actions since last October, and particularly since the death of Justice Scalia in February, the most significant message sent by these developments is this: the elections this November will be absolutely critical to the future of the Court and to all our rights and liberties.
Start with immigration. The Court split 4-4 on the challenge brought by Texas and other states to the president’s executive actions that would have kept families together by shielding undocumented parents of U.S. citizens from deportation and, in total, helped more than 4 million people across the country. The result of the tie vote is that the lower court decision stands without any opinion by the Court, so that a nationwide injunction by a single Texas federal judge against the president’s orders remains in effect. Although the Court doesn’t reveal who voted how in 4-4 splits, it’s almost certain that the four votes against the orders came from Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas, joined by Justice Kennedy.
The Court was also split 4-4 in another important case in June, concerning whether Indian tribal courts can rule in civil cases (this one involving an assault) against non-tribe members who do business on Indian land. Altogether, the Court issued 4-4 non-decisions in five cases this term, the most in more than 30 years – a direct result of Republican Senators’ unprecedented blockade of the Garland nomination.
In several other important cases in June, Justice Kennedy sided with the Court’s moderates and produced positive decisions. This included a decision striking down an extremely restrictive Texas law that seriously and improperly limited women’s access to abortion by imposing draconian requirements on abortion clinics, as well as a decision approving a University of Texas plan to increase diversity on campus through affirmative action in admissions.
So does this mean that we have nothing to fear even if the Republican blockade of President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the vacant seat on the Court succeeds and a President Trump places a right-wing conservative on the Court, because Kennedy is voting with the Court’s four moderates? Absolutely not!
First, the immigration non-decision itself shows that Kennedy – the author of Citizens United and part of the 5-4 majorities in Shelby County and Hobby Lobby and so many other cases damaging our democracy and our rights – unfortunately sides all too often with the Court’s far right wing. That was also shown earlier this term when an apparent 4-4 deadlock forced the Court to essentially punt in the Zubik case, leaving the important question of access to contraceptives and employer religious questions in limbo until the Court again has nine members. Whether than ninth seat is filled by President Obama (or by President Clinton if the Republican blockade continues) or by a President Trump is critical.
In addition, the age of the current justices makes clear that there will likely be additional vacancies during the first term of the next president. Three justices will be above 80 during that time, older than the average retirement age for justices. The president who fills these vacancies could easily tip the balance of the Court, not just on the issues the Court dealt with in June, but also on the environment, money and politics, LGBT rights, voting rights, access to justice, protection from government abuse, and many more. And the answer to whether we have a Senate that is willing to do its job and actually hold hearings and vote on nominees, unlike the current Republican Senate that has refused to even hold a hearing for Judge Garland after more than 100 days, will be crucial as well. Election Day 2016 truly is judgment day for the Court and for all of our rights and liberties.
Boxing legend Muhammad Ali died this weekend at the age of 74. In addition to being an extraordinary athlete -- 'The Greatest of All Time' -- Ali was also a courageous activist who publicly challenged racism throughout his life.
Ali was also a friend of People For the American Way. In 1981, PFAW founder Norman Lear and director Jonathan Demme created a series of PSAs to emphasize that the right to freely express opinions was a critical piece of the American way.
The spots end with the tagline: "Freedom of thought. The right to have and express your own opinions. That's the American Way." Ali appeared in two of them, below. We're proud that Muhammad Ali was a part of our organization's history, and we're proud to honor his legacy with our ongoing work to fight bigotry and protect our basic rights.
In the first few months of this year, for the second year in a row, more than 100 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced in state legislatures, many of them promoted under the banner of protecting religious liberty. A new report by People For the American Way Foundation, “Who is Weaponizing Religious Liberty?,” explains that “it takes a right-wing village to turn a cherished American principle into a destructive culture-war weapon.”
The report makes clear that the wave of anti-equality legislation promoted in the name of religious liberty is not an outgrowth of local conflicts but the latest step in a long-term campaign by national Religious Right legal and political groups to resist legal equality for LGBT people. As Americans have come to know and embrace their LGBT family members and friends, harsh anti-gay rhetoric has become less effective, says the report, leading social conservatives to try to reclaim the moral and political high ground by reframing debates over marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections as questions of religious liberty.
These efforts are being promoted by “a network of national Religious Right organizations that oppose legal recognition for the rights of LGBT people,” notes the report, which profiles some of the leading organizations while noting that they “represent the tip of the iceberg of a much larger movement that is trying to eliminate legal access to abortion and roll back legal protections for LGBT people, couples, and families — and trying to do so in the name of religious liberty.”
· Family Research Council and FRC Action
· Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action
· National Organization for Marriage
· Alliance Defending Freedom
· Liberty Counsel
· American Family Association
· Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
· American Principles Project
The report includes links to additional resources on the organizations behind the Right’s use of religious liberty as political strategy for resisting equality.
The Supreme Court issued a brief unsigned opinion today in the Zubik case, and vacated the conflicting opinions on whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) allows religious nonprofits to effectively take away Affordable Care Act-required contraceptive coverage from their employees. The result is to punt the issue away until the Court again has nine justices, reinforcing again why the Court must have a full complement of justices and why the Supreme Court is such a critical issue in the 2016 elections.
Before the Court in Zubik were a series of cases in which federal appeals courts had ruled that objections by religious colleges and other employers to contraceptive coverage had already been accommodated by the Administration by making clear that the coverage was to be provided by insurers and not involve any employer who expressed a religious objection, so that RFRA was not violated and coverage should continue. The more conservative justices on the Court, including Justice Kennedy, were nonetheless troubled by the claim that the religious employers were still involved in providing the coverage, at least by specifically having to provide notice to object to it. So the Court ordered supplemental briefing in the case on whether it was possible to continue to provide the coverage with no involvement by the employers, other than providing insurance that did not include contraceptive coverage.
In its opinion today, the Court vacated the decisions being considered in Zubik and directed that, on remand, the lower courts should give the government and the objecting employers the opportunity to try to resolve the issue, in light of what the Court characterized as the possibility, as expressed in the supplemental briefs, of ensuring that the coverage can be provided without involving the employers. If needed, the lower courts would then issue opinions on the issue, which could be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Interestingly, the Court also gave the same treatment to the single appellate court opinion that ruled in favor of religious employers and was not included in the Zubik case, vacating that decision as well to be reconsidered again if necessary. The Court specifically made clear that while this process is going forward, women covered by the insurance plans should “receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage," and that the “Government may not impose taxes or penalties” on the religious employers for failing to provide the formal notice of their religious objection which they had complained about in their lawsuits. In other words, no harm should occur to any of the parties while the government and the employers try to work out the problem and litigate it in the lower courts if necessary. A separate concurrence by Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg further emphasized that the decision does not resolve either way the substantive issues, including whether the religious employers do incur a “substantial burden” that triggers RFRA.
While both sides can therefore claim some temporary victory from the Court’s ruling, the clear loser is our American justice system. A crucial legal issue that clearly divides the justices on the Court concerning the application and meaning of RFRA and contraceptive rights remains unresolved. Despite the apparent optimism in the Court’s brief opinion, it seems unlikely that every religious employer in the country will agree to any accommodation under which its employees will still get contraceptive coverage, so that the issue is very likely to remain unresolved and return to the Supreme Court again. Without nine justices on the Court, it seems clear that the Court will not be able to resolve the issue, just as it could not at present. That makes the issue of filling the current vacancy on the Court, and who will be the president that fills future vacancies on our closely divided Supreme Court, extremely crucial now and in November.
The People For family was saddened to learn of the passing of Doris Roberts, a longtime friend and a committed supporter of our work.
Doris Roberts hugs founder Norman Lear at PFAW Foundation’s 30th Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles, December 2011.
For many years, Roberts was an active supporter of People For, speaking at and attending events, helping to spread the word about our work, even recording robo-calls for our campaigns. She was especially passionate about fighting for LGBT equality and acted as a strong advocate in the height of the AIDS crisis and beyond.
People For founder Norman Lear tweeted yesterday that he is “forever in her debt.”
Our thoughts today are with her family and friends. Doris Roberts’ commitment to making our country a stronger, more just place was inspiring – and she will be deeply missed.
Today marks “Equal Pay Day,” the day when women’s pay finally catches up to men’s pay from last year. You’ll have to forgive me for not cheering too loudly.
Each year Equal Pay Day highlights how far we still have to go in the fight for pay equity, and it’s striking how little headway has been made on closing the gap in recent years, with progress all but stagnating in the past decade. Across the board, women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts — a fact that takes on new significance in an election year where the views of the Republican presidential candidates on the gender pay gap range from dismissive to downright hostile.
But the numbers speak for themselves: according to the latest data, women earn on average 79 cents for every dollar that men earn. When you consider a full lifetime of work, the scope of inequality becomes far more dramatic. A new report from the National Women’s Law Center on the “lifetime wage gap“ shows that across 40 years of working, based on the current figures, women lose more than $430,000. When you break down the numbers by race, it’s even more stark; African-American women lose over $877,000, and Latinas more than a million dollars. When women are making hundreds of thousands of dollars less than men over a lifetime, it affects not only women’s financial stability while working and during retirement, but also the financial stability of our families.
Not to mention that it’s spectacularly unfair.
A gender pay gap exists for women in almost all occupations, from teachers to lawyers to cooks to mail carriers, and even in the entertainment field. Demos reports that for retail salespeople, the most common occupation in the country, the gender pay disparity is “particularly stark,” with women who are working full-time earning just 68 cents for each dollar earned by their male co-workers. For women struggling financially, the earnings lost simply for being a woman can mean the difference between barely making ends meet and being forced to choose between basic necessities like food and rent.
When you look at the presidential candidates’ stances on pay equity, it’s clear that the 2016 election will be a pivotal moment for whether progress is possible in the near future. Trump claims to “love equal pay,” but says he won’t support the legislative efforts necessary to make it happen. At an event last year, he told a woman asking about the pay gap that “you’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.” Sen. Ted Cruz voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act and derided it as a “political show vote.” A 2014 newspaper investigation found that in Gov. John Kasich’s office, women were paid nearly $10 less per hour than men, yet on the campaign trail, Kasich blamed not discrimination, but paid leave laws, for causing the wage gap!
Despite Republicans’ dismissal of the issue, equal pay for equal work remains a goal rather than a reality for women across the country. And until we close the gap, Equal Pay Day will remain an unhappy reminder of this continuing inequality.
Kathleen Turner is an advocate and Academy Award-nominated actress, and serves on the board of People For the American Way’s affiliate, PFAW Foundation.
The following is a guest blog by Rev. Faye London, a member of the VASHTI Women’s Initiative within People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.
The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell case – which has now been consolidated with similar cases under the name Zubik v. Burwell – is a continuation of a strategy by the Right to gut the Affordable Care Act since they have been unable to repeal it. All of these cases are framed as "religious freedom" cases, yet trying to limit women’s reproductive freedom is based on a twisted understanding of what the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was meant to address.
Congress passed RFRA more than 20 years ago when the Supreme Court refused to protect native and indigenous individuals from being denied government benefits because of drug tests detecting peyote, a substance that was used in their religious ceremonies. RFRA was passed to protect people from having their free exercise of religion violated by the government.
Like so many others, this law has become a victim of targeted reinterpretation. In 2014, the Hobby Lobby decision made it legal for a corporation to act as an individual with regard to religious freedom. It also redefined religious freedom, so that people and corporations could use RFRA to avoid obeying laws that offend their religious beliefs, but don’t actually limit their free exercise of religion. Several states also considered laws intended to make it legal for any person or business to cite religion in order to ignore laws prohibiting discrimination against same gender loving people. And while that aspect of the debate was all over the news, the threat to women’s health posed by laws like this grew quietly in the background.
The case now at the Supreme Court attacks a vital piece of the puzzle by which ACA protects women's health by requiring health insurance to include contraception coverage without charge. There is an accommodation already in the law that sets an alternative route to coverage for women who work for nonprofit religious organizations that disapprove of contraception. All the organization has to do is fill out a very short and simple form or write a letter stating that as an organization they do not want to provide contraception, and they are relieved from that responsibility and the government takes over, directing the insurance company to pay for the contraception rather than the religious nonprofit. The Little Sisters of the Poor organization and others are saying that signing a one-page form is an "undue burden" on them morally, as it still constitutes participation in opening the way for women to access "sinful" contraceptive care.
This new trend is just another way to strip rights from poor people who depend on these services for survival. It is not about religious freedom. The accommodation is sufficient to protect the Little Sisters' religious freedom. This is about controlling women's bodies (and particularly poor women's bodies, since women of means can afford to pay out of pocket), in order to make space for those who would relieve themselves of any responsibility for ethical treatment of their employees or the public.
I am one who believes that we must be vigilant about protecting true religious liberty, which has been a guiding principle throughout our country's history. As the First Amendment makes clear, all people have a right to practice, or not to practice, any religion they choose. Laws that truly protect individuals' exercise of religion prevent the government from infringing on our rights.
But the state legislature is considering a bill (HB 757) that, though framed in the language of protecting First Amendment religious freedom, at its core is about one thing: discrimination. HB 757 was recently amended and passed by the state Senate and is now being considered by the House. As Americans United explains it, the bill would allow "any individual or 'faith-based' business, non-profit entity, or taxpayer-funded organization to ignore any law that conflicts with their religious beliefs about marriage." In other words, businesses and organizations could cite religion in order to refuse service to certain groups of people.
This bill could lead to any number of nightmare situations. Restaurant owners who refuse to serve same-sex or interracial couples. Domestic violence shelters that turn away unmarried mothers and their children. Adoption agencies that refuse to place a child with parents of different faiths.
It's not the first time Georgia has considered passing a "right to discriminate" bill. Why are our state representatives wasting time, again and again, pushing legislation that would harm Georgians and threaten to drive businesses out of the state? The bill's sponsor even admitted last week that the legislation could protect the Ku Klux Klan as a "faith-based" organization. This bill is too extreme for Georgia, plain and simple.
While the new title of part II of HB 757, "the First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia," may sound like it's about true religious protection, the bill is actually a cynical attempt to turn the idea of religious liberty into a sword to attack other people's rights, rather than to truly shield their own religious practices from improper government interference. That's not what religious liberty is about. Moreover, using religion as a tool to harm others is an idea that a strong majority of Georgians reject. According to new data from the Public Religion Research Institute, 57 percent of Georgians oppose allowing small businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians on religious grounds.
Many faiths, including my own, teach that we should fight for the oppressed. Disguising a push for a "right to discriminate" under the mantle of First Amendment religious freedom is an insult to those moral principles. It's an insult to people of faith who take seriously the call to walk with, and fight for, the most vulnerable among us.
As a Baptist pastor and as a Georgian, I urge our legislators to do the right thing by rejecting HB 757. On the senate floor, Sen. Nan Orrock said, "Be able to tell your grandchildren that you didn't vote for state-sanctioned discrimination." To that, I say: Amen.
Rev. Timothy McDonald III is Senior Pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta and Co-Chair of People For the American Way's African American Ministers In Action.
On Wednesday of this week, in an important case on class actions previewed last September by PFAWF, the Supreme Court handed down a good ruling for consumers concerning class actions. This was an unusual development for the Roberts-Alito Court, which has generally gone along with big business efforts to limit class actions as an important remedy. This time, although Roberts and Alito (and Scalia) dissented, six justices led by Justice Ginsburg rejected a corporation’s effort to hurt consumers.
Class actions are a crucial type of lawsuit that allows consumers and others with relatively small individual claims to band together and seek large amounts of damages to help hold corporations accountable for wrongdoing. In this case, Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, the corporation had violated federal law by sending unwanted telephone solicitations to some 100,000 people. Jose Gomez got one of those solicitations and filed a lawsuit, asking for the maximum statutory remedy for himself of $1500 but also seeking to bring a class action on behalf of the tens of thousands of other people who received the unwanted solicitations. The corporation tried to end the suit by offering to pay Mr. Gomez his $1500 and then arguing that its offer ended the lawsuit and the basis for the class action. If allowed, that would give corporations an easy and inexpensive way to prevent most class action lawsuits.
The Supreme Court rejected the corporation’s ploy in a 6-3 vote. As Justice Ginsburg explained, if a plaintiff like Mr. Gomez rejects an offer, even if it is for the maximum amount that could be recovered individually, the case remains alive and able to be pursued as a class action. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Alito and Scalia, dissented and argued, as they usually do, that the corporation should prevail , since it was willing to give Mr. Gomez “everything he asks for.” As Justice Ginsburg explained in response, that “would place the defendant in the driver’s seat”, improperly allowing corporations to spend minimal amounts to pay off individual plaintiffs and forestall class actions.
This decision will not remedy the damage that the Roberts-Alito Court has previously done, and could well do in the future, to limit class actions and harm consumers. And the Court left open the question of whether a corporation can stop a class action by formally placing the full amount of an individual’s claim in an account and getting a lower court to rule for the individual and dismiss the class action claim. This loophole should be closed by the Court, as the New York Times explained, to “protect what remains of the class action from the unrelenting efforts of business to undermine it.” At least in this case, however, even Roberts and Alito could not muster the votes needed to further harm consumers and help big business.
The Supreme Court began its 2015-6 Term earlier in October. Even though it issued no decisions, the critical issues it considered and the stark divisions on the Court illustrate why Election Day 2016 will be Judgment Day for the Supreme Court and our rights and liberties, when America determines the president who will select Supreme Court nominees beginning in 2017.
Three cases in which the Court heard oral argument in October are good examples. As Supreme Court analyst Tony Mauro put it, the importance of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Electric Power Supply Association is "hard to overestimate," since it could involve literally billions of dollars in electricity costs and determine whether the nation's power grid collapses in the case of a future blackout.
The question before the Court is the validity of a FERC rule that would have the economic effect of persuading large electricity users to cut back their demands at peak power usage times. Not surprisingly, conservative justices like Scalia and Roberts seemed to be clearly siding with big power companies, based on a narrow view of federal government authority, while moderates like Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor appeared to agree with the case for federal authority and the FERC rule.
With Justice Alito recusing himself from the case, the question is whether Justice Kennedy will side with the moderates and uphold the rule or vote with extreme conservatives and vote to affirm a lower court decision striking down the rule. A 4-4 tie would result in the lower court ruling being upheld without a controlling opinion. But if a similar issue arises in a year or so, and if Kennedy, Scalia, or Ginsburg have retired from the Court and are replaced by a nominee selected by the next president, the answer will likely depend on who nominates the new justice.
The Court was similarly divided during oral arguments in October in Montgomery v. Louisiana. That case concerns whether the Court's ruling in 2012, that it is unconstitutional to impose life sentences without possibility of parole on people convicted of murder when they were juveniles, applies to people like 70-year old Henry Montgomery, who was convicted for such a crime long before the Court's ruling and has already spent more than 50 years in prison.
Far right justices Scalia and Alito sounded clearly negative on Montgomery's claim, suggesting that the Court did not even have jurisdiction to hear it, while justices like Kagan and Breyer were far more receptive. As occurred in the 2012 ruling, this case is likely to produce a 5-4 decision with the outcome depending on Justice Kennedy. The fate of a thousand or more people convicted for life while juveniles like Henry Montgomery will hang in the balance.
On its last day of oral arguments in October, the Court heard Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez, one of several cases this Term that concern efforts by business to prevent consumers and others from using class actions to redress corporate wrongdoing. Conservatives on the Court have generally sided with business in such cases and have already severely limited the use of class actions, and Gomez may well be another example.
The issue in the case is whether a business can prevent a consumer like Jose Gomez from bringing a class action to get large amounts of damages and other relief for many injured consumers by offering to give him personally all the damages he can recover as an individual -- in this case, around $1,500 for violating a federal law on unsolicited telemarketing. This would be a good deal for the company, since as many as 100,000 consumers could be included in a class action because of similar violations.
As in previous class action cases, questions from moderates like Justices Kagan and Ginsburg suggested they are likely to agree with the consumer, while those from conservatives like Scalia and Roberts were in the corporation's favor, and Justice Kennedy is likely to be the deciding vote. Regardless of how this case is decided, other cases to be considered by the Court this Term -- as well as in future years -- are likely to have a significant impact on the ability of consumers and others to band together via class actions to obtain meaningful relief for wrongs committed by corporations.
It is always difficult to predict Court decisions and votes based on comments and questions at oral argument, and the Court may not even reach the merits of all the issues presented in these cases. But the importance of the issues at stake -- billions of dollars in electricity costs, the stability of the nation's power grid, the fate of more than a thousand people sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles, and the ability of consumers to effectively seek justice for corporate wrongdoing -- demonstrates the importance of the Supreme Court to the rights and interests of all of us. And the close divisions on the Court on these and other issues, coupled with the fact that four will be over 80 in the next president's first term, show the importance of the 2016 election on the future of the Court -- and why November 8, 2016 truly will be Judgment Day.
If you need more convincing, stay tuned as the Court continues its 2015-16 Term -- the last term before the 2016 election.
Fearless is the word that comes to mind after a recent visit to Selma with 60 members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC) and African American Ministers In Action (AAMIA). Fearless were those who sat in, marched in, taught, prayed, would not be denied 50 years ago. They established the paradigm for what those of us today, who sadly are still in battles for many rights, but more specifically voting rights, must do.
Republican politicians who claim there is no need to restore the protections we lost two years ago when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) need not look any further than Alabama today to see why they are very wrong.
Alabama has a voter ID law requiring people to show government-issued identification in order to vote. But last week the state announced it was closing 31 driver’s license offices, including offices in all counties where Black residents comprise over three quarters of registered voters. In other words, the state is requiring that voters have ID to cast a ballot, and then taking away the places to get that ID - for Black communities in particular. If that doesn’t show that voting protections are still needed, I don’t know what does.
Despite this appalling development, Jeb Bush said yesterday that he doesn’t support reauthorizing the VRA, suggesting that there’s no longer a need for it.
No longer a need for it? The destructive changes in Alabama are exactly the kind of measures that the VRA was designed to protect against. For years, Alabama was one of the states covered by Section 5 of the Act, which required certain places with a history of voting discrimination to get all changes in voting procedures cleared by the federal government before they could take effect. That law stopped scores of voting changes from being implemented in Alabama before they could do any harm. But thanks to the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, that safeguard is gone. On the very same day the Shelby County Supreme Court ruling eviscerated the VRA, Alabama said it would start enforcing its voter ID law.
The fearless women and men in the same state that serves as a symbol of the advancement of voting rights, those Baby Boomers, must still fight with the Millennials to protect them. Like our tour guide last month, Joanne Bland, who in 1965 was an 11 year old member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, activists’ refusal to be discouraged from praying and marching in 1965 is still encouraging in 2015. She and others were honored by thousands who marched and prayed this year on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, including President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, and countless faith and community leaders and activists. They remain the symbol of intergenerational strategic and sacrificial actions that must be taken still today to address and end ongoing racial discrimination in voting.
But it’s not just Alabama. In Mississippi our AAMLC members are seeing precincts closing in or near African American churches, forcing Black residents to travel to white communities to vote. In Florida, a state representative is talking about Republicans winning elections by maximizing the number of incarcerated African Americans in a district, framing the disenfranchisement of Black Americans as an opportunity for political gain. Since the 2010 elections, a whopping 21 states have put new laws in place that make it harder to vote.
Like those who were fearless in the past, we must be fearless today and make sure that all know the fundamental, inalienable right to cast a ballot is in danger still, especially for people of color. Our political system is built on the promise of democracy for all, not democracy for those who can afford to drive cross-state on a weekday to get an ID. How can GOP leaders and presidential candidates continue to insist with a straight face that there’s no need to restore protections for voters? I wish they could one day walk, march in our shoes, to feel the pain of a promise with unnecessary barriers, to try to register and vote. In the meantime let’s be fearless!
For decades, the Religious Right has used public school students as pawns in the "culture wars," fighting to impose a political agenda on textbooks and curricula in school districts across the country. This has included battles over sex education, school-led prayer, publicly funded vouchers for religious institutions, and shaping what children learn by controlling the content of textbooks and access to books in school libraries and classrooms. People For the American Way Foundation has a long record of resisting censorship and defending the freedom to learn.
People For the American Way Foundation is a sponsor of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read -- and an opportunity for readers, authors, publishers, booksellers, and First Amendment advocates to call for continued vigilance against efforts to restrict that freedom. This year’s Banned Books Week has a focus on Young Adult books, which are challenged more frequently than any others.
"These are the books that speak most immediately to young people, dealing with many of the difficult issues that arise in their own lives, or in the lives of their friends,” says Judith Platt, chair of the Banned Books Week National Committee. These are the books that give young readers the ability to safely explore the sometimes scary real world. As author Sherman Alexie said in response to the censorship of one of his young adult novels, “Everything in the book is what every kid in that school is dealing with on a daily basis, whether it’s masturbation or racism or sexism or the complications of being human. To pretend that kids aren’t dealing with this on an hour-by-hour basis is a form of denial.”
Platt describes the importance of Banned Books Week at the Reading Rainbow blog:
Banned Books Week is celebrated each year because efforts are underway in many parts of this country to remove “offensive” materials from public libraries, school libraries, and classroom reading lists. Arguments can be made for involving parents in the education of their children, and giving them an opportunity to voice objections when some reading material runs counter to their own values, but problems arise when that parent wants to dictate what all children can or cannot read. In the Coda to Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury said: “There’s more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
"Banned Books Week is my favorite week of the whole year. Seriously, it's better than Christmas.... Promoting books that have been banned or challenged shines a light on these attempts at censorship. It is an eye-opening experience for many.... We are basically a country built by rebels. When someone tells us 'you can't read that,' we naturally pick it up and read it."
In response to a recent article dismissing Banned Books Week as unnecessary, Peter Hart at the National Coalition Against Censorship argues that censorship is not just a thing of the past:
Graham thinks several hundred cases a year isn't much to get worked up about. But those numbers are a very conservative estimate of the problem. As Chris Finan of the American Booksellers for Free Expression pointed out recently, the American Library Association believes that as many as 80 percent of challenges go unreported. A Freedom of Information Act research project in two states confirmed this; the vast majority of formal challenges are never revealed publicly.
And what about librarians or school officials who seek to steer clear of controversy by avoiding potentially controversial books altogether? There is no doubt that this kind of chilling effect is real. A survey of over 600 librarians released by the School Library Journal in 2009 revealed that 70 percent reported that the possible reaction from parents affected their decisions not to buy a book. About half of librarians reported that they had gone through a formal challenge, and 20 percent of them revealed that the experience affected their book-buying decisions going forward.
So there's strong evidence that there are far more challenges than are reported, and that those challenges affect institutions over the long run. Self-censorship, as the School Library Journal put it, is "a dirty secret that no one in the profession wants to talk about."
Here’s more information on the impact of censorship challenges from People For the American Way Foundation’s “Book Wars” report:
While individual challenges don’t always succeed in removing a book from a school curriculum or forcing a textbook publisher to alter its content, they can have far-reaching effects. Attacks on ethnic studies curricula or challenges to books that deal frankly with the lives and histories of marginalized communities can have divisive results beyond their original goals. For example, organizing a protest of a textbook that supposedly “promotes jihad” may not accomplish its stated goal, but might still succeed in stoking fear and resentment against Muslim Americans in that community.
Attacks on multicultural curricula in schools – like Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies classes – are joined by continuing efforts to ban books that acknowledge gay and lesbian families, teach about world religions, or deal frankly with the history of race in America. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, People For the American Way Foundation tracked challenges to books and curricula that included frank discussions of sexuality, race, and the less palatable truths of American history. In the 2000s, challenges focused also on books accused of promoting the “occult” or “undermining” Christianity, leading the Harry Potter series to top the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books of the decade.
One common theme among many challenged books is their frank portrayals of the experiences of marginalized people. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye are unflinching explorations of being a Black woman in America. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian chronicles a Native American teenager’s experiences living in an impoverished reservation, while going to school in a wealthy nearby town. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explores African-American identity in the mid-20th century. Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, is a landmark piece of Chicano literature. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a dystopian tale about the oppression of women. Marjane Satrapi’s renowned graphic novel Persepolis, is about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution.
And here are some things you can do to fight censorship in your community:
1. Attend school board meetings. School boards and other school decision-makers need to hear from parents, students, and community members who oppose censorship. Attend school board meetings, and stay in touch with board members and principals — even when there are no censorship challenges — to let them know that you care about fair, accurate, and inclusive schools.
2. Stay informed. If a parent or activist group challenges a book in your community's school or district, read the book and learn about its author and its history. Then share what you've found with fellow community members and the local media. A strong, well-informed argument is always an effective weapon against misinformation and prejudice.
3. Make some noise. Start a petition among students and parents in your school or district in support of a challenged book or curriculum, and tell the local media about it. You could also consider holding a protest in favor of the challenged material. In most cases, activists challenging books represent a small fraction of a community; it sends a powerful message when the rest of the community speaks up for its values
4. Look for outside voices. While the most effective arguments against censorship are made by local students and parents, in some cases it can be helpful to bring in outside experts. If the author of a challenged book is living, consider inviting him or her to join a discussion in your community or to send a statement to school leaders. Free speech advocacy groups, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Library Association, and People For the American Way Foundation can also provide resources and advice on how to fight for free speech in schools.
5. Run for office. If you don't like the way your elected officials handle censorship challenges, consider becoming an elected official yourself! Run for school board or volunteer to serve on a school committee that handles challenges against books.