Freedom of Speech

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.
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.

PFAW

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

PFAW

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.
PFAW

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.
PFAW

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...
PFAW

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

Appeals Court Rejects Right Wing Attack on Hate Crimes Law

A unanimous court thoroughly debunks the demagogic assertion that the Hate Crimes Act threatens First Amendment rights.
PFAW Foundation

Freedom for 'Phobes

It has been known for years that Chick-fil-A supports right-wing groups. The company has given out gift cards at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit. At a recent Religious Right gathering, a speaker talked about how wonderful it was to live and work in Atlanta, where, he said, there’s a Baptist church on every corner and the streets are paved with Chick-fil-A.

So I am no fan of Chick-fil-A, but I’m a big fan of freedom, and that includes Chick-fil-A’s freedom to open its restaurants, even in cities where progressive political leaders don’t like the reactionary politics promoted by the company and its owners.

There’s been a robust campaign by advocates for LGBT equality to call more attention to Chick-fil-A’s contributions to “traditional family” groups, which total in the millions of dollars. But the feathers really flew when company president Dan Cathy made comments in an interview with Baptist Press bragging about his company’s position on marriage – “guilty as charged” -- and his comments to an Atlanta radio station.

I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’” said Cathy.

I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about,” he added.

It’s no surprise that Cathy’s comments have stirred supporters of LGBT equality to respond. Much of that response has been in the best traditions of free speech and protest. In Washington, D.C., this week, the Human Rights Campaign organized a protest in front of a Chick-Fil-A food truck. Other activists have rallied outside Chick-Fil-A stores and some students have protested the company’s presence on their campuses.

In addition, a number of political leaders have spoken out in defense of marriage equality and in opposition to the company’s support for discrimination. Twenty years ago, I would never have imagined elected officials taking the time to publicly criticize a business on behalf of the ability of same-sex couples to get married. It’s a good thing – a sign of amazing progress.

But a couple of politicians have gone too far – suggesting that the power of government should be used to prevent the company from opening restaurants based on its political donations and the positions of its owners. That’s not a good thing. As a matter of principle, the government shouldn’t treat individuals differently based on their political or religious beliefs, or companies based on the political activities and contributions of their owners.  As others have noted, we wouldn’t want cities or states to have the power to prevent the opening of stores whose owners support LGBT equality or other progressive causes. 

People For the American Way’s headquarters is located in the District of Columbia, where elected officials have recognized that LGBT people should be treated equally under the law. DC’s progressive public policies stand in stark contrast to the anti-equality work of groups like the Family Research Council, but we would never suggest that the DC government could or should have prevented FRC from planting its headquarters in the center of downtown DC. Our commitment to freedom and equality should extend to those who don’t share it.

PFAW Foundation