Freedom of Speech

Celebrating Banned Books Week

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.”

Many libraries and bookstores are sponsoring events honoring Banned Books Week. Kelly Adams, a children's book specialist at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minn., spoke with Minnesota Public Radio:

"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."

The Banned Books Week website includes case studies on two of the most frequently challenged books, Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Marjan Satrapi’s Persepolis.

You can take the New York Public Library’s banned books quiz at And you may be able to find an event near you.

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.


PFAW Foundation

Pamela Geller Is Not a Hero, But...

This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post.

I am grateful to live in a country where even someone as hateful as Pamela Geller can speak her mind. She can smear President Obama as the "jihadist in the White House" and speculate that he "choked up" with tears when he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden. She can say that Pope Francis' call for "affection and respect" towards Muslims means he has "become an imam." She can compare Jewish Americans who support President Obama to Nazi appeasers and call comedian Jon Stewart "the most disgusting Jew on the planet." She can suggest banning Muslims from becoming airline pilots. She can then claim that anyone who doesn't want to hear her speak is "enforcing the Sharia."

I am also grateful to live in a country where the law protects Geller's right to say these things.

Sunday's incident, in which two gunmen tried to attack an anti-Islam event that Geller and virulently anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders hosted in Texas, was deeply troubling. Our freedom of speech means nothing if people are too afraid to speak. We saw this in a different context earlier this year when Sony pulled a raunchy geopolitical buddy comedy from theaters under threat of terror attacks. Say what you will about Pamela Geller, she has not backed down from any of her vile positions under fear of violence.

But it's important to remember that the fact that she was attacked for her speech doesn't make Geller a hero, or her speech any less hateful. As Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall put it yesterday, "a hate group is a hate group the day after someone takes a shot at them just like it was the day before."

Local Muslim groups had the right idea when they stayed away from Geller's event,declining to protest so that they wouldn't give Geller the attention she so desperately wanted. Those who expose her hateful rhetoric -- like my PFAW colleagues -- also do important work, making sure the public knows that just because she is targeted by violent idiots doesn't make her a serious thinker or a hero.

I know that Geller won't back down from her hateful rhetoric after this event-- in fact, the attempted attack will probably embolden her and cause some to take her more seriously. And we shouldn't stop criticizing Geller -- or, as she puts it, "enforcing the Sharia" -- when she's wrong.

As People For the American Way wrote in 2009 in response to a renewed spate of inflammatory right-wing rhetoric, Americans must "be willing to use their First Amendment freedoms to challenge those who exploit their political positions or media megaphones to promote lies that are intended to inflame rather than inform, that encourage paranoia rather than participation, and whose consequences are at best divisive and at worst, violently destructive."


America's History of Amending the Constitution to Expand Democracy (And Overturn the Supreme Court)

The 28th Amendment would overturn cases like Citizens United and enhance political democracy and the First Amendment.
PFAW Foundation

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

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.
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

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

An amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill would impose much-needed limits on the NSA's unconstitutional surveillance program.

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.



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.


Thank You from PFAW Founder Norman Lear

Please take a moment to watch this end-of-the-year thank you message for you and all of PFAW's wonderful supporters around the world from PFAW founder Norman Lear:

year end donate


Election Is Mandate for Policies Grounded in Progressive American Values

The American people have made their choice -- a resounding victory for President Obama and Vice President Biden and a mandate for their policy agenda.

A Real-Life Halloween Scare From Mitt Romney

Forget ghosts and goblins. Americans' biggest Halloween fear should be a Supreme Court chosen by Mitt Romney.

Chamber of Commerce - Big Spenders in the 2012 Elections

*NOTE: If you happen to be in the D.C. area, consider joining us Friday, Oct. 19 from 11:15a.m.-12:00p.m. for a rally in front of the U.S. Chamber that will call on the organization to disclose the sources of its funding and to stop opposing disclosure reform. The rally will include grassroots organizations as well as small business leaders and will be held at Lafayette Square, NW Corner, across from the intersection of H and 17th Sts. NW, Washington, D.C.*
The 2012 election cycle is poised to be the most expensive on record: if reasonable estimates of its cost are accurate, spending as a percent of real GDP will be 5.4% higher than in 2008.
The reason for this is not difficult to ascertain: because of the infamous Citizens United decision in 2010, election spending by outside groups has quadrupled since 2006. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce—the largest lobbyist organization in the United States and the flag bearer for corporate interests—had a lot at stake over the decision and submitted an amicus curiae brief during the proceedings.
A common misperception is that the primary effect of Citizens United has been to allow wealthy individuals to commandeer elections via unlimited independent expenditures. While this is true to some extent, corporationsrepresented by trade and lobbying organizations like the Chamber—also have a pivotal role to play in such efforts. In fact, the Chamber spent more than any Super PAC during the 2010 election cycle, indicating that corporations have benefited just as much as individuals.
The Chamber has been the premier vehicle for funneling cash to key pro-corporate initiatives for decades. It is a national organization with 300,000 businesses as members and a further 3,000,000 businesses and individuals as associates via state and local Chambers. Though the national and state/local Chambers are affiliates, often coordinate their efforts, and ostensibly have the same goals, increasingly there is divergence between them. For example, the 2010 congressional midterms saw 40 state/local Chambers dissociate themselves from the national Chamber over the content of advertising during the election cycle.
Receiving donations from a variety of businesses and individuals (the organization doesn’t have to disclose donors due to its 501(c)6 non-profit status), the Chamber claims to segregate funds for several distinct purposes: thus far, it has donated $1.59 million to campaigns, parties, and associated PACs, spent a whopping $55 million on lobbying, and spent a further $22 million on ‘outside spending’ in 2012.
Though ‘outside spending’ constitutes an undue extension of corporate influence over elections, the Chamber still dedicates the bulk of its funds to lobbying. In each instance, its pernicious influence affects the debate by skewing discussion toward corporate-sponsored proposals. For example, the Chamber has worked hard to water down regulations on derivativesespecially the Volcker Rule, which bans proprietary trading (derivatives were at the heart of the Great Recession of 2007-09) and in 2010 the chamber sued the Environmental Protection Agency in order to challenge carbon emission regulations.
As an integral member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) —a consistent supporter of regressive Republican candidates and an organization with hundreds of millions of dollars at its disposal—the Chamber’s activity evinces the fact that corporations are very active this election cycle and that the claims that the Citizens ruling has enhanced free speech are absurd.
PFAW Foundation

New TV Ad! "Mitt Romney's Supreme Court: Too Extreme For America"

Mitt Romney says that a woman's right to choose an abortion even in cases of rape and incest is a "decision that will be made by the Supreme Court." But Romney has promised Supreme Court Justices who would overturn Roe v Wade...

PHOTOS: Religious, Political Leaders Join Launch of People For Foundation Report, '12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics'

Last week, People For the American Way Foundation launched a new report, “12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics,” which offers guidelines for policymakers and advocates seeking to bring faith into political debates.

Joining us at a launch party for the report and a discussion of the issues it raises were Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress; Sister Simone Campbell, director of the Catholic social justice group NETWORK; and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Here are some photos of the event from People For Foundation’s Dylan Hewitt:

Sister Simone Campbell talks with People For’s COO, Nick Ucci 

People For President Michael Keegan, Rep. Keith Ellison, and Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery 

Michael Keegan and Rep. Keith Ellison

Sister Simone Campbell and Rabbi David Saperstein

Rabbi David Saperstein 

Rep. Keith Ellison and Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, director of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Conference.

PFAW Foundation