“In February, a family values group asked the principal of Howell High School in Michigan to take four books off the 11th grade reading list. …Vicki Fyke, a founding member of (Livingston Organization for Values in Education)…said she was most alarmed by a child rape scene in ‘The Bluest Eye.’
…Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, says the episode sheds light on a larger problem. ‘ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a growing conflict between parents and educators who see schools as their private playground for indoctrination and social experimentation,’ Glenn said. He believes parents and community members have a right to intervene in schoolsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ decision making and calls FykeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reaction to the reading list a ‘rational and moderate’ response.”
NEW YORK RESIDENT
New York, New York
August 14, 2007
Teen free speech: Defending studentsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ rights at school
By Annie Correal
When Joseph Frederick, an 18-year-old high school student, unfurled a banner that read Ã¢â‚¬Å“Bong Hits 4 JesusÃ¢â‚¬? along the crowded route of the 2002 Olympic torch relay in Juneau, Alaska, he may not have expected it to take him all the way to the Supreme Court. But when it got him suspended from his school, Frederick became a national figure in a First Amendment battle and a focal point for the National Coalition Against Censorship, which defends First Amendment rights.
The coalition issued an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case on behalf of 50 national nonprofit organizations and free speech advocates. The coalition argued that schools should not be able to restrict student speech when students were off campus, unless they were on field trips or school-sanctioned events. The battle over free speech is being echoed in school cases around the country.
Just in the last year, a family in California sued a high school for censuring their freshman daughter for saying, Ã¢â‚¬Å“ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s so gay.Ã¢â‚¬? In Indiana, two sophomores went to court after they were expelled for making a movie depicting killer teddy bears attacking a teacher. And in Virginia, a teacher who moonlighted as an abstract artist sued after he was fired for a YouTube video that depicted him making paintings with his behind.
The coalitionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s executive director, Joan Bertin, says there are many more disputes that never make it to the news because they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t reach the court system.
Every week, the coalition receives about a dozen allegations of censorship from around the country in its midtown Manhattan office, which is lined with file cabinets filled with reports of controversial art exhibits, theater productions and even scientific investigations. But according to Bertin, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s public high schools that are keeping her eight-person operation busy these days.
Bertin, a former public interest lawyer, estimates that more than half of the reports that come across her desk concern teens or teachers who have tested the limits of free speech and have been punished for it.
The reason the coalition sees so many school cases, Bertin says, is the growing involvement of parents and community members in the education processÃ¢â‚¬â€particularly at the high school level.
When Bertin first took the helm of the coalition in 1997, most of the complaints she received involved middle schools. Today, the coalition is getting a significantly higher rate of complaints from high schools. Parents and community members have always felt a responsibility to monitor what their young children were exposed to at school, but Bertin says, Ã¢â‚¬Å“the age ceiling seems to be rising.Ã¢â‚¬?
Books are a hotly contested topic. In February, a family values group asked the principal of Howell High School in Michigan to take four books off the 11th grade reading list. The Livingston Organization for Values in Education (LOVE) complained about sexual themes and profanity in Toni MorrisonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Bluest Eye,Ã¢â‚¬? Richard WrightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“Black Boy,Ã¢â‚¬? Kurt VonnegutÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“Slaughterhouse FiveÃ¢â‚¬? and Erin GruwellÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Freedom Writers Diary.Ã¢â‚¬?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We are not talking about Ã¢â‚¬ËœCatcher in the RyeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ or Ã¢â‚¬ËœHuck Finn,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢Ã¢â‚¬? said Vicki Fyke, a founding member of LOVE. She said she was most alarmed by a child rape scene in Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Bluest Eye.Ã¢â‚¬?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We are talking about books that describe acts that are actually illegal,Ã¢â‚¬? she said.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This stuff can change who people are,Ã¢â‚¬? Fyke added. Ã¢â‚¬Å“And itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not fair for schools to have that power over children without parents knowing.Ã¢â‚¬?
The coalitionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first task when it receives a report that a book has been challenged is to research the case and inform the local school board of its legal obligations under the First Amendment, which safeguards the right to free speech and free expression. If a school fails to respond, the group generally contacts local reporters to generate publicity. As a last resort, the group seeks out a lawyer.
In the Michigan case, that wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t necessary. A few days after LOVE petitioned to remove the books and the coalition sent a letter supporting the literary value of the works, the local school board voted 5-2 to keep the books on the shelves.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Not one of those people voted for those books voted because they were good for children,Ã¢â‚¬? Fyke argued. Ã¢â‚¬Å“They voted the way they did to support their teachers.Ã¢â‚¬?
Bertin says episodes like the one at Howell have a Ã¢â‚¬Å“chilling effect,Ã¢â‚¬? making educators think twice before assigning books that have caused problems in the past.
But Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, says the episode sheds light on a larger problem.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a growing conflict between parents and educators, who see schools as their private playground for indoctrination and social experimentation,Ã¢â‚¬? Glenn said. He believes parents and community members have a right to intervene in schoolsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ decision making and calls FykeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reaction to the reading list a Ã¢â‚¬Å“rational and moderateÃ¢â‚¬? response.
Bertin is quick to point out that book complaints come from Ã¢â‚¬Å“left, right and center.Ã¢â‚¬?
The vigilance of parents and community members has made schools more cautious and quicker to react to cases, Bertin said. Recently the coalition was notified when an elementary school girl in Texarkana, Texas, was punished by school administrators for going onto a Web site at school that was deemed inappropriate because it showed nudity. The site was an online paper-dolls game.
The Internet is another hot zone for free speech debates Ã¢â‚¬â€ at all grade levels, according to Samantha Harris, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, which focuses on colleges and universities.
Popular social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace make it easier for schools to root out student bullies or kids involved in illegal activities, but free speech advocates say punishing students for online behavior amounts to censorship.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve seen a major uptick in censorship and punishment Ã¢â‚¬â€ after-the-fact censorship,Ã¢â‚¬? Harris said. Recently, the foundation was alerted when Sigma Chi fraternity members at Johns Hopkins University were punished for posting an invitation for a Ã¢â‚¬Å“Halloween in the HoodÃ¢â‚¬? party on Facebook that was filled with racial references. The fraternity was suspended and is now on probation.
Advocates like Bertin say they hope the Frederick case, which will come before the Supreme Court this spring, may help safeguard studentsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ free speech rights off campus, too.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The proper response to bad speech is more speech,Ã¢â‚¬? Bertin said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“not enforced silence.Ã¢â‚¬?