Freedom of Expression

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.
 

PFAW Foundation

After Outcry From PFAW Foundation and Others, NC School Board Rescinds Ban on ‘Invisible Man’

The North Carolina school board that voted to ban Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel Invisible Man from school libraries last week has now voted to reinstate the book, reports Asheboro’s Courier-Tribune.

Last week after hearing about the ban, PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan sent a letter to Randolph County school board members urging them to reverse their decision.  Area media outlets documented the local, national, and even international response.

The board listened to the outcry.  The Courier-Tribune reports that yesterday evening, the Randolph County Board of Education voted 6-1 to reinstate the book to school libraries in the county.  At the meeting, some board members reflected on their changing perspectives about censorship and constitutional liberties:

Lambeth said since the last meeting he had listened to other viewpoints and still was concerned about the book’s content and protection of students, but realized that the decision was about a child’s First Amendment rights and educational values, not his personal perspective.

Board member Tracy Boyles said he had wondered as he drove home from the last meeting whether he had made the right decision….He also reflected on his son being in the Air Force and ‘in war twice.…He was fighting for these rights. I’m casting a vote to take them away. Is it right of me? No.’

Fighting censorship has long been a priority of People For the American Way Foundation.  Freedom of expression – whether in schools, museums, or any public place – is a fundamental right of Americans that PFAW Foundation will continue its work to protect.
 

PFAW Foundation

Déjà Vu as the Right Attacks ‘Hide/Seek’ at the Brooklyn Museum

The Religious Right is up in arms about an exhibit of art by and about gay and lesbian Americans that’s opening at the Brooklyn Museum today --- especially about a small snippet of a video work that some have deemed “anti-Christian.”

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s an exact repeat of what happened when the same exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” opened at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery last year.

To recap, “Hide/Seek,” which was the first major exhibit to explore themes of gender and sexual difference in American art, opened at the Smithsonian in October 2010 to rave reviews and no complaints. The next month, a reporter from the right-wing outfit CNSNews visited the exhibit and was shocked by what she saw. On November 29, she filed an epic 3,700 word story with the breathless title: “Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts.” Cue the right-wing outrage, which ended up settling mostly on the “ant-covered Jesus,” a few seconds of a compilation of video works by the gay artist David Wojnarowicz, who had used traditional Catholic iconography of the suffering of Christ to reflect on the suffering of victims of the AIDS crisis.

Bill Donohue, the unsavory leader of the Catholic League (an advocacy organization not officially related to the Catholic Church), immediately took on the crusade against gay art and the “ant-covered Jesus” as his own, calling the Wojnarowicz piece “hate speech,” and claiming the exhibit was “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.” Soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor smelled blood and jumped on the issue, threatening the Smithsonian’s relatively miniscule federal funding if the exhibit was not removed. Cantor adopted Donohue’s and CNSNews’ preposterous argument, stating the show was "an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season."

On November 30 – one day after the CNSNews hit piece was published – the Smithsonian caved in and removed the Wojnarowicz piece from the exhibit.

It was a stunningly quick cave to arguments backed only by anti-gay prejudice and the increasingly popular myth of Christian victimization. But the Smithsonian’s cowardice had one silver lining: “Hide/Seek” got national press attention and Wojnarowicz’s work was displayed in museums across the country.

Now, New York viewers are getting a change to see the whole exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. And, it seems, the Religious Right is getting another chance to raise a fuss about gay people making art. As PFAW Foundation’s Michael Keegan writes in the Huffington Post today, a coalition of right-wing figures, including Donohue, CNSNews, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and a handful of GOP elected officials, are attacking the exhibit, recycling the same claims that it somehow amounts to attack against Christians during the “Christmas season.”

Importantly, the Brooklyn Museum has dug in its heels and is not backing down to the pressure. But it’s remarkable that the weak attacks on “Hide/Seek” still have energy behind them from the Right one year later. PFAW Foundation has invited Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, the Bishop of Brooklyn, who first raised the right-wing alarm about the Brooklyn exhibit, to debate the issue in a public forum. We hope he accepts.
 

PFAW

Mitt Romney Brings Back Bush’s Economics and Bork’s Jurisprudence

When Mitt Romney announced last month that his campaign’s legal team would be led by rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, we were somewhat aghast. Bork’s legal record was so extreme – he opposed the Civil Rights Act and the right to birth control, for instance – that his 1987 Supreme Court nomination was rejected by the Senate. And his views have hardly tempered since then – a 2002 PFAW report checked back in on Bork’s crusades against pop culture, freedom of expression and gay rights.

But Robert Bork isn’t the only blast from the past who Romney has brought in to help develop his policies. Today, the former Massachusetts governor announced his economic team – which unsurprisingly includes two prominent economic advisors to George W. Bush, including one of the primary architects of the disastrous 2003 Bush tax cuts.

Two of the four members of Romney’s econ team are former Bush advisers – R. Glenn Hubbard, who was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 2001 to 2003, and N. Gregory Mankiw, who took over from 2003 to 2005. Hubbard helped devise the tax cuts for the wealthy that were the largest contributor to the ballooning budget deficit under Bush, and which Republicans in Congress still refuse to roll back. Mankiw helped Bush with his plan to privatize Social Security and praised the benefits of outsourcing labor.

Mitt Romney is getting something of a free pass in the current GOP field, but his choice of advisors shows just how extreme he really is. The last thing we need is more economic policies like Bush’s or judges like Bork, but under Romney it seems that’s exactly what we’d get.
 

PFAW

"Hide/Seek" and the Future of Fighting Censorship

Watching "A Fire in My Belly"

The National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibit closed last month, but the debate surrounding it is far from over.

On Feb. 17, People For’s president, Michael Keegan joined People For board member Ron Feldman and NYU law professor Amy Adler at Feldman’s gallery to discuss “Hide/Seek” and the right-wing outcry that led to a work of art being removed from the exhibit.

The discussion began with a viewing of a four-minute version of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly,” which was removed from the exhibit after Religious Right leaders and Republicans in Congress deemed it, in the words of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

Adler recalled the last time the Religious Right took aim at Wojnarowicz: in the early 1990’s, the American Family Association included edited images of the artist’s work in mailings meant to provoke anger against National Endowment for the Arts spending. Wojnarowicz sued the AFA for copyright violations, and became a symbol of fighting back against right-wing censorship efforts.

Don Wildmon, the head of the AFA at the time, “chose [Wojnarowicz] as a symbol because there is something very powerful about his work,” said Adler. “Ironically, his continuing vulnerability to censorship becomes a testament to the greatness of his art…his art seems to continually provoke and that says something of his greatness.”

Keegan spoke of the National Portrait Gallery’s decision to host the potentially controversial exhibit in the first place. “What the Smithsonian did was wonderful, and we and other groups were very happy that they decided to host the exhibit and celebrate gays and lesbians as part of the American experience,” he said.

When Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough decided to remove the Wojnarowicz work from the exhibit in response to an outcry from far-right leaders like the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, People For called on the museum to correct its mistake and put the work back, and then called on Secretary Clough to resign his post. Neither effort succeeded, but the outcry among arts groups and proponents of free speech was strong.

“It wasn’t a victory in terms of putting the piece back and getting Clough out,” said Keegan, “but it was a victory in terms of drawing attention to censorship and starting the discussion.”

Feldman, who has been a leader in the battles over arts funding and freedom of expression for decades, said, “I think it’s the best we’ve ever done in one of these cases.” Although the Religious Right succeeded in getting a work it didn’t like removed from the exhibit, he said, “they had no traction.” Instead, he argued, the controversy spurred discussion of censorship, the AIDS crisis, and Wojnarowicz’s life and work: “We won in the sense that people were talking about David.”

Feldman argued that the art world was successful in fighting back against the Religious Right’s attacks by defining the works in question. “They attack the subject without actually having to deal with the meaning of the artwork,” he said, “The art world fought back with definitions."

Adler, Feldman, and Keegan

PFAW

Important votes next week on DADT, DREAM, and secret holds

It could be a big week next week for the Senate. When Majority Leader Reid brings the FY 2011 Defense authorization bill to the floor, we are likely to see consideration of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the DREAM Act, and secret holds.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. According to PFAW’s Michael B. Keegan and Marge Baker, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell runs counter to the honesty and integrity we associate with the armed forces, not to mention the values of equality and freedom of expression espoused by our Constitution.” AAMIA’s Reverend Timothy McDonald, III and Reverend Dr. Robert P. Shine agree that LGBT individuals “share in the sacrifices made by their family, friends, and neighbors. They deserve to serve honestly and openly with dignity.” Conditional repeal passed as an amendment to the FY 2011 Defense authorization bill on the House floor and in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Now that the bill is coming to the Senate floor, repeal opponents may get a chance to modify that language or remove it entirely. We want to make sure that the current language remains intact as the bill goes into conference and eventually heads to the President’s desk.

The DREAM Act. Earlier this year, PFAW urged the Senate to take action on comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). And we urged both chambers to recognize LGBT families in their work. We have also been longtime supporters of the DREAM Act, a bill that would grant children of undocumented immigrants the opportunity to earn legal permanent resident status in the US. It may now see light of day as an amendment to the FY 2011 Defense authorization bill. Senators should take this opportunity to send a clear message that expanding access to higher education for these children – and for anyone – benefits them, benefits our economy, and benefits our country.

Secret holds. PFAW has been a staunch defender of Senate rules and procedure against unprecedented obstruction. Senator Wyden has also taken up this cause. He joined with Senators Grassley, McCaskill, Murray, and Sherrod Brown to introduce the Secret Holds Elimination Act, a bill that would require public disclosure of all objections. Attempts were made this summer to push such disclosure, and another is expected within the FY 2011 Defense authorization bill. No single Senator should be able to stop legislation or nominations without at least some measure of transparency and accountability.

These are not the only issues we’ll be monitoring next week, but they are three on which we expect votes. Please contact your Senators now.

PFAW

PFAW and AAMIA tell Congress: Repeal DADT

People For the American Way and African American Ministers in Action wrote to Congress today urging repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Votes are imminent in both the House and Senate.

According to PFAW’s Michael B. Keegan and Marge Baker:

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell runs counter to the honesty and integrity we associate with the armed forces, not to mention the values of equality and freedom of expression espoused by our Constitution. Repeal is necessary to restore these values. Until then, LGBT soldiers will have to lie and hide their true identity on a daily basis. Those who live openly and share information about their spouses, significant others, or dating life risk investigation and involuntary expulsion. Any statement that one is gay – to anyone, at any time, before or after enlistment – can be reason for discharge. Your life is a constant liability to your career when you are gay in the military.

AAMIA’s Reverend Timothy McDonald, III and Reverend Dr. Robert P. Shine further explored the ideas of equality and open service.

The faith community will continue in faithful dialogue to address the questions of LGBT equality and recognition of same-sex relationships. However, one thing people of faith should and do recognize is the need to protect constitutional and civil rights of all Americans, especially those who are discriminated against because of who they are. LGBT individuals are ready and willing to step up, and have stood up to the challenge of military service. They share in the sacrifices made by their family, friends, and neighbors. They deserve to serve honestly and openly with dignity.

Please write or call your Representative now and tell him or her that you support repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Share the same message with your Senators if they are on the Armed Services Committee.

PFAW