Issue 88, Winter 2002/2003

When Lisa Distelburger, a sixteen-year-old junior at Clarkstown North High School in New City, NY, heard that a fellow student’s work was removed from an art exhibit on social commentary, she sprang into action. The artwork depicted fighting in Northern Ireland, a suicide bombing in Israel, and the bodies of victims of violence in India with a commentary: “If this is the will of God, who needs God?” Lisa organized her school community in protest and was successful in having the art work restored.

The New York Library Association and SIRS (Social Issues Resources Service) awarded Lisa an Intellectual Freedom Award for 2002. What follows are excerpts from Lisa’s acceptance speech:

“Last year, a computer graphics class at my school was assigned to do a social commentary in wake of the recent events occurring in our global community. One student’s voice was silenced in a malicious act of the administration, because she dared to challenge religious conflict and ask: why? Being both an active member of the art department and a firm believer in the First Amendment, I, along with many other students, was outraged by the artistic censorship that was occurring at my school. I began to research freedom of expression in the context of the public school system. I came across the Supreme Court case Tinker vs. Des Moines whose verdict stated, ‘Students do not shed their contitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate.’

“Believing that our First Amendment rights were being violated, Dana and I founded the organization ‘Students for Free Expression,’ whose goal was to combat artistic censorship and social injustice. We gained tremendous support from students and faculty as we wore pins, armbands, necklaces, and shirts that preached our cause. We staged a protest in front of our school and gained exposure from the local media. In the end, the piece was hung back up in a smaller venue, in the administration’s effort to silence our rage. Although justice wasn’t served for the right reasons, the hundreds of students who took part in this active coalition learned more about the First Amendment than any history class could possibly teach. We took the knowledge we acquired from school on the Bill of Rights and transformed it into the vortex of our crusade for freedom. If that’s not education, I don’t know what is.”