Friday, January 29, 2010

Fear of Sex Leads to More Book Bannings

You'd think that by the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, book bannings, especially for matters involving ... gasp ... sex ... would be ancient history (or at least history). But no. Parents of middle school students are still demanding that books be removed from school libraries and curricula because of references to sex or, even worse, descriptions of actual, real, honest-to-goodness female body parts.

First, we have the events in Menifee, California, reported in the Press-Enterprise:
After a parent complained about an elementary school student stumbling across "oral sex" in a classroom dictionary, Menifee Union School District officials decided to pull Merriam Webster's 10th edition from all school shelves earlier this week.

School officials will review the dictionary to decide if it should be permanently banned because of the "sexually graphic" entry, said district spokeswoman Betti Cadmus.
Think about that one for a moment. A dictionary had a definition for a sexual act that a parent found offensive, so the dictionaries were removed from the classrooms. Really? Come on. Who didn't look up "bad words" in the dictionary when they were a kid? Besides, wouldn't you prefer that kids get a clinical, correct definition for certain terms than the more likely (and probably wrong) definitions that they'll undoubtedly learn from classmates? But more troubling is the fact that, after a complaint by a single parent, the school removed the dictionaries. In wonder if that dictionary included definitions of words like penis or vagina. Speaking of which...

According to the Culpepper, Virginia Star Exponent, The Diary of a Young Girl (The Diary of Anne Frank) is being removed from the Culpepper school system's curriculum. Why? According to The Washington Post, it was removed because of the following passage:
There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can't imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!
So, because one parent complained about two sentences in one of the most important, most beloved books of the twentieth century, the school system pulled the book. To that one parent, the perceived harm of his or her child reading about a teenage girl, who knew she would probably die, wondering about her vagina, sex, and birth, is reason enough to prevent the rest of the children in the school system from reading a book about hate and love, heroism and hope in the face of the Holocaust.

I'm curious how the parents that complained about the dictionary or The Diary of Anne Frank would feel if their child had access to a book with the following:
He shall lie all night between my breasts.... His left hand under my head, and his right doth embrance me.... Thy young breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lillies.... Come, blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out.... My beloved put his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. Thy stature is like a palm tree, and thy breasts are clusters of grapes. I will go up the palm tree, and grasp the boughs. I am a wall, and my breasts are as towers.
Um, no wait. Those descriptions of sex are probably OK. After all, they're from The Bible (Song of Solomon). I guess it's only non-Biblical sex that probably drives these parents to demand censorship.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Tolerance Remains an Elusive Goal

I'm sure that many of you have read about the Florida high school principal who not only refused to help a student who was being taunted by other students because she was gay, but who actually told her that her sexual orientation was "wrong" and then "outed" that student to her parents, told her to stay away from other students, and then suspended her friends when they wore gay pride shirts and buttons as a sign of support. (See the AP story which has been reprinted numerous places.) I find this story so disturbing on so many levels, I'm not really sure what to address or which element offends me most. So, I'll start at the beginning.

First, I cannot believe that any school official would ever knowingly allow a student to be taunted. Isn't part of the role of the school to protect children? How mad would you be if your child came home and said that she was being taunted at school but the principal wouldn't do anything about it? We'd all be outraged if the principal's reasoning was the student's race or religion; but why are some people willing to treat the student's sexual orientation differently? Is it OK to string a gay man up on a fence post and leave him to die just because he's gay?

While I can understand the principal's desire (although I completely disagree) to set the student "straight" (pun intended), I cannot believe that he would tell her that her lifestyle is "wrong". Sure, if what she was doing was illegal or dangerous then "wrong" might be appropriate, but telling a teenager that being a lesbian is wrong is no better than telling a Jewish student that his religious choice is wrong, telling a Republican that his political affiliation was wrong, or making any pronouncement related to a student's other conscious and personal choices. How offended would you be if your child came home and told you that the principal told her that her religious affiliation or political affiliation was "wrong". Why is her sexual orientation any different?

And I cannot believe that the principal "outed" the student to her parents. I'd be curious to know if he did it out of a sense of moral superiority (as in, "if her parents know, they'll "fix" the problem") or malice (as, in, "if her parents know, they'll beat some sense into her") or xenophobia (as in, "if her parents know, maybe they'll move her out of my school where I won't have to deal with her"). But what right did the principal have to give this type of information to the student's parents? Would you feel differently if the principal told the parents that the student had expressed an interest in a different religious viewpoint or was seen wearing a campaign button for a political party different from the parents' choice? What if the principal told the parents that their daughter's boyfriend was of a different race or different socio-economic class? I'm sure that teachers and school administrators learn private information about students all the time, but so long as that information does not impact upon illegal conduct or poor performance in school, then by what right are the school administrators disclosing that information to the parents?

I'm not even sure how to address the principal's telling the student to stay away from other students. Was he afraid that homosexuality was contagious or that she would rape other kids?

High school is difficult enough for most students, even without worrying about coming to terms with their sexual orientation. But to have the school principal tell you that you're "wrong", tell your parents, and punish your friends...? How much more difficult can life get?

And let's talk about those friends for a moment. I have a hard time believing that there are many principals left in America who aren't somewhat familiar with the limited free speech rights still available to students. Of course, the most famous case dealing with the subject is Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of students to wear black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War. In that case, the Court noted that students do not "shed their constitutional rights when the enter the schoolhouse door." But apparently, the principal at one Florida school was either unfamiliar with this doctrine or simply thought that it didn't restrict his behavior, at least not when the issue was ... gasp ... homosexuality. Once again, can you imagine a principal suspending students for wearing a t-shirt endorsing the politician of their choosing? For wearing a button opposing the war in Iraq or supporting Greenpeace? So how could anyone think that it was OK for the principal to suspend students for simply wearing shirts or buttons to support their friend? I'd be curious to know if the principal stops students from wearing shirts or hats with Confederate flags?

And, if all of that wasn't bad enough, the principal starting asking students whether they were gay or associated with gay students. Apparently, this principal went to the McCarthy school of government administration which conveniently ignores such fundamental concepts as privacy rights and the constitutional right to freely of associate. Of course, all of that pales in comparison to the fact that the principal apparently lifted students' clothing to see if they'd written "Gay Pride" or "GP" on their skin. How would you feel if you learned that the principal at your daughter's school had lifted your daughter's shirt to see if she had written "Obama for President" or "WWJD" on her skin?

Also I can't let the reaction of the citizens of the town go without comment. They are religious people. Fine. They think that homosexuality is wrong. Fine. I'm not telling them that they should change their own particular views, religious or otherwise. They can feel and think however they want about homosexuality. That is one of the joys of America. You are free to be an idiotic, homophobic bigot if you want to. But you cannot force those beliefs upon others. The AP article says that townsfolk feel as if outsiders are forcing beliefs on them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, they are simply being told that they can't force their beliefs on everyone who happens to share their town. Stop for a minute and ask if the situation would be any different if, instead of homosexuality, the issue was race or religion. Would anybody think it OK for the community to burn a cross on the yard of the new black or Jewish neighbors? They don't have to invite the girl over to dinner or let their son or daughter date her. They don't even have to talk to her. But she is still entitled to the same constitutional rights and protections as the rest of the community.

The principal went way beyond what was right, let alone legal. That is terrible. But the support that the townsfolk expressed for his actions is, perhaps, worse, because it demonstrates a complete failure to comprehend constitutional rights, including the right to be different. It is somewhat ironic that this lack of understanding comes to light with regard to the failings of the educational system. It makes me wonder what else the people in that part of Florida have been (or not been) taught. I wonder if they still think that slavery was a good idea?

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Recap of Interesting News Items

Several items in today's issue of The Indianapolis Star caught my eye and prompted me to offer at least a few (notice that I did not say "brief") thoughts on each:


First, was the editorial "The trouble with judging a book by its cover" by Kathleen Parker about a student/employee at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) who was apparently censured for reading a book about a confrontation between students and Notre Dame and the Ku Klux Klan in 1924. A co-worker who only saw the cover of the book thought that it was racially insensitive and should not be read in public and filed a complaint against the student/worker. IUPUI censured the student/worker for his choice of reading material. Then, just recently, IUPUI reversed its position and rescinded the censure because the University could not make a determination as to whether the reading material or the choice to read that material was "intentionally hostile". Today's The Indianapolis Star also has an article on this story that relays these same basic facts: "IUPUI withdraws reprimand of worker". For the record, it is worth noting that the issue may have been more about the student/employee's behavior toward other employees and less about the book, but, nevertheless, the letter of censure appears to be directed toward the choice of reading material:
We conclude that your conduct constitutes racial harassment in that you demonstrated disdain and insensitivity to your co-workers who repeatedly requested that you refrain from reading the book which has such an inflammatory and offensive topic in their presence.

Several things about this story prompted me to write. First, while I read the paper every day, this was the first time that I've heard about this story, even though it concerns events here in Indianapolis. (I admit that I might have missed it earlier, but it seems like the type of story that I would have noted.) Yet, the editorial is from a Washington Post columnist. How is it that this story was picked up by the national press and ignored here in Indianapolis? Second (and much more importantly), the very notion that a person's choice in reading material, especially historical reading material, could be racially insensitive borders on the ludicrous. I suppose that an employee reading a book extolling the virtues of the KKK or something similar might cross that line, but history is history and the mere fact that someone is interested in history should not subject that person to criticism for racial insensitivity. What is even odder is that the book appears to be an anti-racism book about the beginnings of the decline of the importance of the KKK in Indiana (a state with a government once dominated by the KKK). And finally, of all places for a complaint like this to have arisen, it would seem that a public university would be the least likely to challenge a student's reading material. I can recall reading some pretty strange things when I was a student (which, it should go without saying, does not necessarily mean that I approved of the text or ideas of that material; rather, reading that material was a part of the learning process). I can't fathom my university (and I attended a private school) telling me not to read something because someone else might be upset. While it may be acceptable for a private employer to intervene in how an employee acts during his breaks, it is troubling to think that a public university would intervene to such an extent that an employee who is also a student could not freely choose what to read.

I think that this entire matter, from the conduct of the student/employee, to the conduct of the employee(s) making the complaint, to the University's administrators who issued the letter of censure should be the subject of an investigation. If the student/employee engaged in conduct that was hostile or racially insensitive, then he should be punished, but that conduct must be more than reading a book others may disapprove of (especially if they don't really know what the book is about). Might the employee have been subject to sanction for reading the Koran if another employee was an Iraq war veteran or a 9/11 survivor? By the same token, however, if the complaining employee was not on firm ground in making his complaint, then that employee should be punished. And, most importantly, the author of the letter sanctioning the student/employee for his choice in reading material should, in all likelihood, be shown the door as it does not seem to be the role of anyone in a public university to criticize, let alone censure, a student for choosing to learn about history.

Environment & Presidential Authority

The next article that caught my eye was "Bush overrules EPA ozone rule" by Juliet Eilperin (The Indianapolis Star, March 14, 2008, page A5; for some reason not available on According to the article, the Environmental Protection Agency was prepared to issue new Clean Air regulations. Yet, before the EPA could do so, President Bush stepped in and, perhaps illegally, told the agency to weaken the regulations:
EPA officials initially tried to set a lower seasonal limit on ozone to protect wildlife, parks and farmland, as required under the law. While their proposal was less restrictive than what the EPA's scientific advisers had proposed, Bush overruled EPA officials and ... ordered the agency to increase the limit....

In the opinion of John Walke, clean air director for the National Resources Defense Council:
It is unprecedented and an unlawful act of political interference for the
president personally to override a decision that the Clean Air Act leaves
exclusively to EPA's expert scientific judgment.

Even US Solicitor General Paul Clement recognized that President Bush's action presented a problem, as the new rules "contradicted the EPA's past submissions to the Supreme Court".

But then this is not the first time that President Bush has ignored advisers. He has previously forced changes in a report on global warming that he disagreed with and changed generals in Iraq to get a general that advocated a strategy endorsed by the President. So, we shouldn't be surprised. But we should be troubled.


Finally, for those of you who have been reading this blog over the last month or so know, I've expressed repeated concerns over Indiana's proposed immigration legislation. I am quite pleased to see that the bill (originally SB335 then amended into SB345) appears to be dead for the 2008 legislative session (see "Immigration bill appears dead"). Once again, I want to be clear: I am not necessarily opposed to immigration reform or to some of the broad concepts set forth in the draft legislation. However, as the cliche goes, the devil is in the details, and SB335 (and its offspring and siblings) had too many problems in the details (leaving aside such large details as constitutionality...) to be adopted as law.

I am sure that this issue will again be before our legislature next year; hopefully in the long session, without the property tax crisis dominating all other issues, and in a non-election year, the General Assembly will be able to give much more careful consideration to whether state-based immigration reform is appropriate and what form such reform should take. I've previously highlighted a number of concerns with the draft legislation (as, of course, have others). Perhaps if more of these concerns are understood and addressed, viable and appropriate legislation will be possible. But for now, I'm pleased to see that neither SB335 nor SB345 will become the law of the State of Indiana in 2008.

One final note on the defeat of the immigration legislation. Sen. Mike Delph, the bill's primary author and sponsor, has been the target of much criticism during the legislative process. The criticism directed at him with regard to the specifics of the bill or his appearance with a uniformed soldier to endorse the bill was appropriate; however, some of that criticism devolved into charges of racism which I don't believe were appropriate (although I do think that some supporters of the bill have been racially motivated). I disagreed with some of Sen. Delph's ideas, but I do not question that his motives were good and I do not think that his ideas were racially motivated.

That said, however, some of Sen. Delph's comments, quoted in today's The Indianapolis Star did bother me. According to "Immigration bill appears dead" by Dan McFeely, Sen. Delph said of the legislative process that lead to the "killing" of the immigration bill: "It's corruption. And you can quote me on that". Just as I'm sure Sen. Delph does not appreciate the charges of racism, I'm sure that legislators who had legitimate concerns with SB335/SB345 would not appreciate being charged with corruption. Frankly, I think that it is blatantly irresponsible of Sen. Delph to make such a charge without evidence. Political and policy disagreements do not corruption make. It appears that Sen. Delph believes that if he doesn't get his way, it must be because of corruption in the system. Perhaps, Senator, the bill died because many people had concerns with its provisions, not the least of which would be its constitutionality.

Sen. Delph is also quoted as saying "I think this has been a well-orchestrated effort, bipartisanly [sic] from both leaderships, to try to kill the bill .... Unfortunately, the will of the people is losing now and it's a shame." Again, while the effort to kill the bill may have been "well-orchestrated", there is nothing nefarious going on. While many people may have supported the bill, many others did not. The business community, the Chamber of Commerce, immigrant groups, and religious groups all expressed opposition or concern about the legislation. So, the suggestion that the leadership prevented "the will of the people" from becoming law is not based on real facts. Sen. Delph often cites his constituent survey and notes that 87% of his constituents favored his bill; however, it is worth noting first that his survey was conducted before the actual text of the bill was introduced and before anyone had a chance to comment on its flaws. Second the language of the survey is just the type of pre-determinative language that makes reliance upon survey results so dangerous:
Illegal immigrants' unfunded use of local government services adds to demands on local property taxes. Would you support or oppose a bill that would get tough on illegal immigration and those who profit from such activity.

I can't imagine anyone saying no to that sort of statement. The problem, of course, is that the basic premise of the "question" is, at least partially, false.

I look forward to participating in an open and honest discussion of these issues in the future. I hope that our legislators and concerned citizens will participate as well. But, I hope that such participation is done in good faith and with an open mind and without the name calling, racial overtones, and refusal to think about competing viewpoints that has plagued discussion of the issue this year.

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