Issue 107, Summer 2008
In the run-up to this summer’s Olympics, several organizations are shining a spotlight on China’s abuses of press freedom and censorship of the Internet.
PEN American Center’s “We Are Ready” campaign urges the Chinese government to free over three dozen imprisoned writers. Meanwhile, the ACLU has worked to ensure that protesters along the Olympic torch relay route are free to exercise their First Amendment rights instead of being herded into “free speech zones.”
The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) has published an analysis of abstinence-only sex education programs in Alabama. The report – available at siecus.org – reveals that students are being denied information about contraception, sexual health, and homosexuality. Meanwhile, the state is experiencing a marked increase in the incidence of sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy.
Members of the Campaign for Reader Privacy (www.readerprivacy.org) are urging lawmakers to restore safeguards protecting the privacy of bookstore and library records that were eliminated by the USA PATRIOT Act. The American Booksellers Association, American Library Association, Association of American Publishers, and PEN American Center released an open letter to members of Congress in support of the National Security Letters Reform Act (S. 2088 and H.R. 3189). Booksellers and librarians are currently barred by a gag provision from revealing the receipt of a National Security Letter (NSL), used to obtain Internet records, or a Section 215 order, used to demand all other records. (A federal district judge has held this provision to be unconstitutional, but that decision has been stayed on appeal.) The legislation would limit the duration of the gag and restrict FBI searches to records of people suspected of terrorism or espionage. The letter cites recent reports by the Inspector General of the Justice Department showing that the FBI repeatedly has abused its authority to issue NSLs. The House and Senate Senate Judiciary Committees held hearings on National Security Letters in late April.
The Texas Council of Teachers of Language Arts, an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), won a dispute as the Texas State Board of Education moved to change statewide English, language arts, and reading curriculum standards. The proposed revisions originally included a rule calling for reading lists of “recommended” titles, which many teachers and publishers routinely interpret as creating barriers to assigning any books not on the list. Such a list would have severely restricted teachers’ ability to select reading materials responsive to the needs and interests of their students, especially since books by and about Latinos were poorly represented on the list. In a letter to the State Board of Education, NCTE Executive Director Kent Williamson urged Texas “to adopt Standards that encourage teachers to use their pedagogical knowledge” in order to prepare students for the literacy demands of higher education and the workplace [and] help each student build the literacy skills needed for success in the 21st century.” The Board adopted new standards in late May after agreeing to drop this clause.
The Texas Board of Education is also keeping the National Center for Science Education on its toes: proponents of creationism or “intelligent design” are one vote short of a majority on the Board, and are seeking a state-wide mandate that science textbooks include discussion of the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. Legislators in a half dozen other states are pressing for similar measures.
A growing coalition is calling for reforms of U.S. surveillance practices, particularly with respect to restoring legal oversight of the government’s wiretapping program. The Union for Reform Judaism‘s Religious Action Center recently called on members and supporters to write to Congress, explaining, “When government power to spy on people goes unchecked, the ability to express unpopular opinions freely and openly is eroded—a person can become the target of an investigation simply because of the organizations she participates in or the books he reads. In the fight against terror and for freedom for others, we must never abandon our commitment to our own freedom and the rule of law.”