In a submission to a UN human rights review, anti-censorship groups document violations of freedom of information and expression in public schools, jails, and prisons

New York and Copenhagen

For more information contact Svetlana Mintcheva at 212-807-6222

In a new report to the United Nations assessing the United States’ compliance with its human rights obligations, two leading free speech organizations argue that the U.S. must do more to protect the rights of youth in public primary and secondary schools as well as the rights of inmates in jails, prisons, and detention centers.

“The right to read and to experience art is protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” stated Ole Reitov, Executive Director of Freemuse, “which guarantees the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds ‘in the form of art.’ The U.S. must honor its obligations to its vulnerable citizens under the care of state institutions.”

The joint submission to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the U.S. was prepared by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), a New York-based alliance of more than 50 national organizations, and Freemuse, a Copenhagen-based organization that defends creative freedom for musicians and other artists. It is the first report of its kind to concentrate on freedom of artistic and cultural expression in the U.S.

The submission documents how hundreds of books are challenged and banned in primary and secondary public school classrooms and libraries each year. Among them are acclaimed works such as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Challenges to books are often brought by a single family or local citizen with moral and religious objections to their content, NCAC and Freemuse report. Some school boards lack formal policies for reviewing and responding to these challenges, and others may have policies but fail to follow them, resulting in arbitrary decision-making by school administrators and other officials.

“Although the federal government has a limited role in education,” commented Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programs for the NCAC, “much more could be done. A good start would be a ‘key policy letter’ by the Secretary of Education encouraging school districts to adopt formal review policies to ensure greater transparency in their enforcement.”

The submission also documents widespread censorship in U.S. jails, prisons, and detention centers, citing the proliferation of “postcard-only” correspondence policies and the banning of works about Botticelli, Cezanne, Da Vinci, Matisse, Michelangelo, Picasso, Rembrandt, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Vemeer from Texas state prisons on grounds of “sexually explicit images.”

Among other recommendations, NCAC and Freemuse call on the Offices of the U.S. Attorneys to investigate the protection of incarcerated persons’ freedom of expression and call on the Obama Administration to submit for ratification the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides in Article 31(2) for “the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life.”