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Posts Tagged ‘censorship’

The Multiple Meanings of a Muse

In art, censorship, intellectual freedom on February 14, 2011 at 7:25 am

I was just teaching a student how to find Creative Commons images to spice up a Powerpoint she prepared when I accidentally came across this awesome artistic commentary. 

Thanks John LeMasney for adding your voice to the chorus on the NJ censorship case against my book, Revolutionary Voices. That chorus includes students, actors, lawyers, journalists, librarians, parents, authors, friends and tons of concerned residents. Thanks for all the letters of support!

Following the public conversation about the book’s removal has been an inspiring experience, even as I follow its detractors. Just makes me more committed to creative and intellectual freedom!


The Censor’s New Clothes, CLA Presentation

In censorship, education, intellectual freedom, LGBTQ issues, public libraries, school libraries, youth on December 4, 2010 at 1:09 pm

As promised, here are the slides from my brief presentation on the Revolutionary Voices book challenge in New Jersey. (Delivered at the California Library Association conference, Sacramento, CA, Nov 14, 2010).

Library law expert Mary Minow and school librarian Jill Sonnenberg joined me for a great overview on the ideological forces driving intellectual freedom challenges in libraries (from LGBTQ-themed books to Vamos a Cuba to Internet filtering). Mary clarified the meaning of Island Trees v. Pico and legal differences between public–school material challenges.

Jill talked about the ways filters are changing and limiting student’s ways of learning, particularly when it comes to active learning methods using content creation, critical inquiry and collaboration. She shared,

While most of us out there in the trenches will fight to keep important books on our shelves…[w]e are not fighting for students’ rights to create and collaborate…We stop at no when our districts or tech directors or network administrators summarily or arbitrarily ban blogs and wikis and social networking and media sharing and yes, even digital storytelling.” — Joyce Valenza (10/5/08, “2.0 is an Intellectual Freedom Issue”)

Jill left us with an excellent list of practical background reading, especially Doug Johnson.

Censored Book Contributors

A Message to LGBTQ Youth

I talked about the recent challenge against Revolutionary Voices in the context of a religious and political campaign against Obama appointee Kevin Jennings, while focusing on some of the learning and positive outcomes the challenge created. Most notably: both sides harnessed their ability to get the word out online and, therefore, opened doors for a (somewhat) transparent public debate. We need more of this.

I recently heard second-hand that another NJ library is reconsidering The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The school apparently discussed making the decision quietly behind closed doors. Not every challenge results in a book removal, but transparency about challenges provides a crucial pulse-check and an invaluable learning opportunity for anyone engaging in the debate — especially local students.

On a related note: NJ school librarian Dee Venuto provides excellent documentation on the Revolutionary Voices challenge on Prezi.

From Glenn Beck to Your Backyard: Targeting Gay Books

In censorship, gender, intellectual freedom, LGBTQ issues, school libraries, youth on April 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Tomorrow, April 12th, a special review committee** in Mount Holly, NJ, will determine the fate of three books challenged for gay-themed content. One of them is my queer youth anthology, Revolutionary Voices. (The other two are: The Full Spectrum and Love & Sex). A local group has called the books pornography and wants them removed from Rancocas Valley Regional High School.

While the legal standard on pornography will not help their cause, school book challenges like these have been successful. It is my sincere hope these books won’t be removed — both on merit and legal precedent. Island Trees v. Pico held:

“Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'”

Unfortunately, political and religious objections to LGBTQ-themed material are old news. But, what’s newsworthy here is who’s behind this challenge. As American Libraries reported, they are connected to Glenn Beck’s 912 Project.

Beck is known for his alarmist and inaccurate commentary. He admits that he doesn’t check his facts. With millions of viewers, however, he’s not to be underestimated.

Last Fall, Beck began attacking Kevin Jennings, former director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).* Picking up the torch, local chapters of Beck’s 912 Project are now requesting the removal of books that appear GLSEN’s book list. Mine included.

This particular chapter is in Burlington County, NJ. According to its MeetUp page, the chapter boasts 350 members (called “freedom’s foot soldiers”). If you have any doubt that their motives are political or religious, you might look at 912’s Principles. Number 2 is: “I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life.” A perfectly noble belief, but not a good reason to withhold well-reviewed books from the entire student population.

Luckily, community members and library media specialists at Rancocas Valley High have been proactive in defending students’ freedom to read. They are also warning other libraries to be on the lookout for challenges backed by other 912 chapters. Last week I wrote a letter to the Board offering “my full support to the media center staff who judiciously select materials based on local policy and reliable reviews.”

I wrote in my letter, as well, about the young people for whom these books have made a difference. In the decade since Revolutionary Voices was first published I have received hundreds of comments from readers. In almost every case, they convey how the book inspired them or taught them something new.

One letter came from Lewis W. in Ann Arbor, MI, who was 15 when he found the book in his teen center library. He wrote,

“My friends and I passed around a single copy of this book for weeks… I was fascinated and relieved that there were other people out there who shared elements of my identity. At the same time, it was really important for me as a pretty sheltered young person to see that I was by no means identical to other LGBTQ youth, that there was a wide diversity of voices within the community. This was an illuminating and strengthening part of the book for me.”

While book challenges can become a battle of the most vocal, I hope the Board takes perspectives like Lewis’ into account. Queer students may not feel safe speaking up when LGBTQ books are challenged. But, they certainly deserve a chance to discover the “diversity of voices” that make balanced library collections so crucial for the health of our communities and democracy.

**This is corrected information. I previously wrote that the local Board of Education was meeting Monday. The Board will not meet until late April. This special committee is tasked with making a recommendation to the Board.

* Side note: There’s been criticism of the content of specific GLSEN safe sex workshops that I will not get into here. If you want to look it up, search for “fistgate,” or better yet “kevin jennings and revolutionary voices.” You can see where Beck got his information from.

D.C. Court Delivers Bad News for Net Neutrality

In law, net neutrality, open access on April 7, 2010 at 8:49 am

According to the DC Circuit Court, it’s OK for Comcast to block, slow down or otherwise obstruct access to content like YouTube and music sites. This is very bad news for users. Given that telecom corporations have already restricted user access to certain sites, it is not hard to imagine the cascade of censorship corps will now feel emboldened to pursue — for profit and/or political reasons.

Urge the FCC to Continue Fighting for Users’ Rights.
Act Now at

Read more:

U.S. Court Curbs FCC Authority on Web Traffic
New York Times, by Edward Wyatt

“The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dealt a sharp blow to the efforts of the Federal Communications Commission to set the rules of the road for the Internet, ruling that the agency lacks the authority to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to all Internet traffic flowing over their networks. The decision specifically concerned the efforts of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, to slow down customers’ access to a service called BitTorrent, which is used to exchange large video files, most often pirated copies of movies. But Tuesday’s court ruling has far larger implications than just the Comcast case. The ruling would allow Comcast and other Internet service providers to restrict consumers’ ability to access certain kinds of Internet content, such as video sites like or Google’s YouTube service, or charge certain heavy users of their networks more money for access. Google, Microsoft and other big producers of Web content have argued that such controls or pricing policies would thwart innovation and customer choice. Consumer advocates said the ruling, one of several that have challenged the FCC’s regulatory reach, could also undermine all of the FCC’s efforts to regulate Internet service providers and establish its authority over the Internet, including its recently released national broadband plan.” >FULL ARTICLE

Read the decision (US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit)

Additional Coverage (gathered by Benton Foundation):

Court Backs Comcast Over FCC on ‘Net Neutrality’ (WSJ)

FCC’s Net neutrality plans in turmoil (USAToday)

US internet reform plan hit by court ruling (Financial Times)

Google, Skype Set Back as Ruling Puts Web in ‘No-Man’s Land’ (Bloomberg)

Top Legal Issues for Libraries: Two Webinars

In censorship, law, library profession, privacy, public libraries, school libraries on March 15, 2010 at 8:59 am

Recently, I’ve attended two helpful webinars on hot legal topics in libraries. Thursday’s session by LibraryLaw’s Mary Minow focused on:

  • The hurried extension of the USA PATRIOT Act;
  • Recent court decisions about public meeting space in libraries (no, you cannot bar religious groups), and
  • Legal precedent set by book challenges including a Florida ruling that sidestepped Island Trees v. Pico and established a slippery slope around books containing representational “inaccuracies.” The Supreme Court let the 11th Circuit’s 6-3 decision stand when it declined to hear the case last November. (The book removed was Vamos a Cuba).

Watch the recorded webinar.

The other useful session, held in February, covered “Library Laws for the Mobile Web Environment.”

On CNN: It Seems You Can’t Even Buy a Balanced Debate

In activism, censorship, free press, immigrant rights, media justice, racism on October 15, 2009 at 12:36 pm

On Twitter, @mediajustice just shared this: CNN rejected a television ad from immigrant reform advocates. The ad, critical of CNN’s own Lou Dobbs for his anti-immigrant and patently inaccurate tirades, was produced and sponsored by Media Matters and America’s Voice.

Dobbs’ hour-long show airs daily and has also been the target of the grassroots Basta Dobbs campaign in recent weeks. Ironically, that campaign is asking the show’s advertisers not to lend credibility to sensationalist, and racially hateful, journalism. While media outlets always reserve the right to reject ads, CNN seems to be sending the message that Dobbs deserves his pulpit while his critics do not. Yes, not even if they buy it.

From a public debate standpoint there are many nuances to this campaign and the Dobbs criticism. I plan to address those in future posts. But, for now, I will say: We need to understand media accountability as distinct from censorship, and journalistic speech as a powerful form of speech that can and should be held to a high standard by the public. If a journalist, even in an editorial form, is being irresponsible with their influence it’s the public’s right to challenge that influence, especially when lies are let to stand by a media outlet. Some would say this is a slippery slope to free speech infringement. I disagree. It’s a matter of understanding media accountability models developed within a human and civil rights framework — frameworks that inherently value freedom of speech and information (more on this in later posts). Further, just like book challenges provide a pulse-check on ideological debates (information we need!), media accountability campaigns bring necessary perspectives to the surface. It’s only then that we can engage the questions, “Are all ideas created equal?” and “Whose agenda is reflected in the criticism?” In the Dobbs case, does a major media megaphone for this particular man’s ideas create more danger and inequity than social good? And finally, if media outlets must operate in the public interest, is Dobbs’ particular brand of punditry in the public interest? Do we define that interest, or does the corporate outlet?

More on this story from the Huffington Post.

Watch the Media Matters ad.

Amazon Censors LGBTQ Lit

In activism, censorship, information access, LGBTQ issues, libraries on April 13, 2009 at 2:12 pm

banned-revolutionaryDuring the last few days, thousands of LGBTQ titles were demoted by including my young adult anthology Revolutionary Voices.

The mega-store removed rankings from titles deemed “adult” — seemingly as part of a sweeping effort to remove erotica. It is unclear what “offending” keywords they used to strip books of their findability but the impacts were extensive. As of tonight many of the rankings have reappeared after massive public response. (Read background here).

But the issue is not resolved. Amazon originally claimed this was a “glitch” in its filtering effort. Today, confirmed that this is untrue, but a result of decentralized tagging for which “no human is responsible.” Regardless, we should keep pressure to find out how Amazon is filtering material, how decisions are made, and what will be done to prevent such “glitches” in intellectual freedom in the future. Let the letter writing continue! Amazon should not get off the hook for this one, and they are not the only major company blocking access to books. Content filtering is an ongoing issue among libraries, bookstores, schools, internet-service-providers, et al.

For Amazon’s contact info see this post from Sunday’s Daily Kos.

UPDATE from Monday 3/13: It’s true that a hacker claimed responsibility. Many are questioning the truth of that explanation as well. No matter the outcome, this incident still illustrates the general need for more transparency among information sellers/providers re: their search functionality and filters. (Last year, the medical database POPLINE blocked all searches for the word “abortion.”)

UPDATE 2: Decent article summing up controversy in New York Times.

For those in the San Jose area, there is a city council meeting on the issue of filtering in the public library next week:
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
7:00 PM to 10:00 PM [Evening session]
Location: Wing Public Rooms Council Chambers
200 E Santa Clara Street
San Jose, CA

Banned & Recovered: Oakland Art Exhibit

In art, censorship, cultural activism, intellectual freedom, libraries on November 20, 2008 at 11:26 am

img_1960Today I saw a great art exhibit at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO): Banned & Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship. The show includes some truly beautiful pieces including an installation by Oakland artist Victor Cartagena in tribute to one of my favorite poets, Roque Dalton. Dalton’s poems rain down from the ceiling and cover the walls, while the doorway to the room reminds us: “Yes, we are not made of ‘words alone,’ but Dalton’s words were banned and he lost his life because of them.” Another great piece brings Toni Morrison’s Beloved to life, and another depicts the burning of Harry Potter books in cities across the U.S.

Co-presented with the San Francisco Center for the Book, the exhibit runs until December 31, 2008.

AAMLO 659 14th Street, Oakland , CA

Gallery hours: Tues-Sat, 12-5:30


Liz Hager

Artist: Liz Hager

Victor Cartagena

Artist: Victor Cartagena

Read the rest of this entry »

Librarian Gets Award for Protecting Reproductive Rights

In activism, censorship, intellectual freedom, libraries, library associations on November 17, 2008 at 6:53 am

censorship buttonSan Jose, CA — Gloria Won, a medical librarian at the University of California, San Francisco, and library director Gail Sorrough received the Zoia Horn Intellectual Freedom Award on Friday night from the California Library Association for challenging government censorship of reproductive health information.

In her day-to-day work as a medical librarian Won noticed that the word “abortion” retrieved fewer and fewer results in the POPLINE (POPulation Information OnLINE) reproductive health database, which is federally funded. She found out that “abortion” and terms related to it had been turned into stopwords. (For those of you not familiar with stopwords, they are usually limited to words like “but,” or “and” that a database should skip over when processing a search request). In Spring 2008, Won wrote to POPLINE database manager Debra L. Dickson:

Even more troubling is the implications for the average user – eliminating this term essentially blocks access to the reports in the database and ultimately to information about abortion. ‘Unwanted w2 pregnancy’ is not a synonym for abortion.

Radical Reference helped get the word out about this blatant affront to information access, asking concerned librarians to contact POPLINE. The block was soon removed on the terms. Congratulations and thank you Gloria!

Ban Prisons, Not Books

In censorship, intellectual freedom, LGBTQ issues, prisons, youth on November 16, 2008 at 1:07 am

Click here for a videocast of my Banned Book Week speech, San Jose, CA, October 4, 2008.

[excerpt] “The rise in book challenges and successful book removals is a sign of our larger political times. To me, it’s no coincidence that we’ve seen a tenfold increase in book challenges and an 800% increase in the number of people in prison over the last two decades. The two issues are directly related. In municipalities across the U.S., libraries (even schools from Seattle to Contra Costa) are closing, but prison expansion is still on the rise (despite falling violent crime rates). Last time I checked, the need for education was not suddenly declining — on the contrary, it’s only literacy rates that fall when we invest more in prisons than in schools or libraries. So how is it that Banned Book Week, budget cuts affecting literacy and educational programs and our nation’s prison priorities are related? Because: more than 60 percent of prison inmates are illiterate. 85 percent among juveniles. This is a problem that starts in our communities, not the jails. It’s disturbing, but states have been planning the number of new prison beds to build based on the number of children who are reading below average by the 2nd to 4th grade. Think about this. States do not use this information to channel money into prevention and literacy programs. They budget to expand prisons. This is a terrifyingly backwards cycle….” watch the full speech.