On her second day as Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings sent a letter to PBS in which she pressured the network into canceling an episode of "Postcards from Buster," a children’s program intended to teach about diversity. The program, which is about making maple syrup and dairy farming in Vermont, features a household headed by two women. Their relationship is not defined, nor is sexual orientation mentioned. Nevertheless, fearing that some "parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode," Ms. Spellings suggested PBS refund federal money spent on the show and issued a warning to PBS about future support.
Secretary Spellings has crossed a critical constitutional line. The Supreme Court has recognized as "a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, ? that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." Nor can the Government "leverage its power to award subsidies on the basis of subjective criteria into a penalty on disfavored viewpoints," or employ the power of the purse "to have a ‘coercive effect’? calculated to drive ‘certain ideas or viewpoints from the marketplace.’"
The Education Secretary’s role is not to represent exclusively the interests of only one group of parents and impose one set of beliefs on everybody else, but to foster the best possible educational environment for all, including the children of gay parents. In a free society, parents can decide for themselves and their children what is, and is not, acceptable viewing. Some parents may applaud the segment, others may condemn it; the vast majority probably would not even recognize sexual orientation as an issue.
It is especially disheartening that PBS so readily agreed to cancel distribution of the program. PBS officials have not only demonstrated how vulnerable their professional decisions are to political pressure, they have also violated their mission to serve "all American children." In doing so, PBS disserves its audience and undermines viewers’ right to make their own selections from a diverse menu of choices.
The children who might have enjoyed the program and learned something from it are the real losers.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Feminists for Free Expression
First Amendment Project
Freedom to Read Foundation
PEN American Center