First Amendment

Celebrating Banned Books Week

For decades, the Religious Right has used public school students as pawns in the "culture wars," fighting to impose a political agenda on textbooks and curricula in school districts across the country. This has included battles over sex education, school-led prayer, publicly funded vouchers for religious institutions, and shaping what children learn by controlling the content of textbooks and access to books in school libraries and classrooms. People For the American Way Foundation has a long record of resisting censorship and defending the freedom to learn.

People For the American Way Foundation is a sponsor of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read -- and an opportunity for readers, authors, publishers, booksellers, and First Amendment advocates to call for continued vigilance against efforts to restrict that freedom. This year’s Banned Books Week has a focus on Young Adult books, which are challenged more frequently than any others.

"These are the books that speak most immediately to young people, dealing with many of the difficult issues that arise in their own lives, or in the lives of their friends,” says Judith Platt, chair of the Banned Books Week National Committee. These are the books that give young readers the ability to safely explore the sometimes scary real world. As author Sherman Alexie said in response to the censorship of one of his young adult novels, “Everything in the book is what every kid in that school is dealing with on a daily basis, whether it’s masturbation or racism or sexism or the complications of being human. To pretend that kids aren’t dealing with this on an hour-by-hour basis is a form of denial.”

Platt describes the importance of Banned Books Week at the Reading Rainbow blog:

Banned Books Week is celebrated each year because efforts are underway in many parts of this country to remove “offensive” materials from public libraries, school libraries, and classroom reading lists. Arguments can be made for involving parents in the education of their children, and giving them an opportunity to voice objections when some reading material runs counter to their own values, but problems arise when that parent wants to dictate what all children can or cannot read. In the Coda to Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury said: “There’s more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

Many libraries and bookstores are sponsoring events honoring Banned Books Week. Kelly Adams, a children's book specialist at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minn., spoke with Minnesota Public Radio:

"Banned Books Week is my favorite week of the whole year. Seriously, it's better than Christmas.... Promoting books that have been banned or challenged shines a light on these attempts at censorship. It is an eye-opening experience for many.... We are basically a country built by rebels. When someone tells us 'you can't read that,' we naturally pick it up and read it."

In response to a recent article dismissing Banned Books Week as unnecessary, Peter Hart at the National Coalition Against Censorship argues that censorship is not just a thing of the past:

Graham thinks several hundred cases a year isn't much to get worked up about. But those numbers are a very conservative estimate of the problem. As Chris Finan of the American Booksellers for Free Expression pointed out recently, the American Library Association believes that as many as 80 percent of challenges go unreported. A Freedom of Information Act research project in two states confirmed this; the vast majority of formal challenges are never revealed publicly.

And what about librarians or school officials who seek to steer clear of controversy by avoiding potentially controversial books altogether? There is no doubt that this kind of chilling effect is real. A survey of over 600 librarians released by the School Library Journal in 2009 revealed that 70 percent reported that the possible reaction from parents affected their decisions not to buy a book. About half of librarians reported that they had gone through a formal challenge, and 20 percent of them revealed that the experience affected their book-buying decisions going forward.

So there's strong evidence that there are far more challenges than are reported, and that those challenges affect institutions over the long run. Self-censorship, as the School Library Journal put it, is "a dirty secret that no one in the profession wants to talk about."

The Banned Books Week website includes case studies on two of the most frequently challenged books, Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Marjan Satrapi’s Persepolis.

You can take the New York Public Library’s banned books quiz at And you may be able to find an event near you.

Here’s more information on the impact of censorship challenges from People For the American Way Foundation’s “Book Wars” report:

While individual challenges don’t always succeed in removing a book from a school curriculum or forcing a textbook publisher to alter its content, they can have far-reaching effects.  Attacks on ethnic studies curricula or challenges to books that deal frankly with the lives and histories of marginalized communities can have divisive results beyond their original goals. For example, organizing a protest of a textbook that supposedly “promotes jihad” may not accomplish its stated goal, but might still succeed in stoking fear and resentment against Muslim Americans in that community.

Attacks on multicultural curricula in schools – like Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies classes – are joined by continuing efforts to ban books that acknowledge gay and lesbian families, teach about world religions, or deal frankly with the history of race in America. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, People For the American Way Foundation tracked challenges to books and curricula that included frank discussions of sexuality, race, and the less palatable truths of American history. In the 2000s, challenges focused also on books accused of promoting the “occult” or “undermining” Christianity, leading the Harry Potter series to top the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books of the decade.

One common theme among many challenged books is their frank portrayals of the experiences of marginalized people. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye are unflinching explorations of being a Black woman in America. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian chronicles a Native American teenager’s experiences living in an impoverished reservation, while going to school in a wealthy nearby town. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explores African-American identity in the mid-20th century. Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, is a landmark piece of Chicano literature. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a dystopian tale about the oppression of women. Marjane Satrapi’s renowned graphic novel Persepolis, is about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution.

And here are some things you can do to fight censorship in your community:

1.       Attend school board meetings. School boards and other school decision-makers need to hear from parents, students, and community members who oppose censorship. Attend school board meetings, and stay in touch with board members and principals — even when there are no censorship challenges — to let them know that you care about fair, accurate, and inclusive schools.

2.       Stay informed. If a parent or activist group challenges a book in your community's school or district, read the book and learn about its author and its history. Then share what you've found with fellow community members and the local media. A strong, well-informed argument is always an effective weapon against misinformation and prejudice.

3.       Make some noise. Start a petition among students and parents in your school or district in support of a challenged book or curriculum, and tell the local media about it. You could also consider holding a protest in favor of the challenged material. In most cases, activists challenging books represent a small fraction of a community; it sends a powerful message when the rest of the community speaks up for its values

4.       Look for outside voices. While the most effective arguments against censorship are made by local students and parents, in some cases it can be helpful to bring in outside experts. If the author of a challenged book is living, consider inviting him or her to join a discussion in your community or to send a statement to school leaders. Free speech advocacy groups, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Library Association, and People For the American Way Foundation can also provide resources and advice on how to fight for free speech in schools.

5.       Run for office. If you don't like the way your elected officials handle censorship challenges, consider becoming an elected official yourself! Run for school board or volunteer to serve on a school committee that handles challenges against books.


PFAW Foundation

Bryan Fischer's Amazing Inability To Abide By His Own Theory About The First Amendment

As we have noted several times before, Bryan Fischer has an utterly incoherent understanding of the First Amendment, insisting that it only applies to Congress whenever he wants to defend some possible establishment of religion violation but insisting that it applies to everyone when he wants to complain about some possible violation of its free exercise clause.

This basic contradiction popped up once again in his latest column in which he warns that Christians are becoming "the new Dred Scott" due to the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down state gay marriage bans. Citing cases involving Christian bakers who refused to provide wedding cakes to gay customers and the false claim that one of the bakeries had been slapped with a gag order, Fischer claims that their First Amendment rights are being violated (emphasis added):

Readers are by now familiar with Aaron and Melissa Klein, who were fined $135,000 by a bureaucrat (no trial by jury, no judge, no right to confront accusers in open court, etc.) for politely declining to violate their own Christian conscience in the conduct of their business.

To add constitutional insult to constitutional injury, this bureaucrat slapped a gag order on the Kleins so they are not allowed even to talk to anybody about this travesty. Their right to the free exercise of religion, gone. Their right to free speech, gone. Their right to free association, gone.

In other words, this bureaucrat just issued a binding decree that the First Amendment applies to everybody in America except Christians. Christians, according to this man, have no First Amendment rights of any kind.

A baker in Colorado, Jack Phillips, is going to court today for similarly declining to use his expressive gifts to bake a cake which included a message of support for same-sex marriage. For his effrontery, having the nerve to actually believe the First Amendment applied to him, he too has been fined, ordered to bake cakes that violate his conscience, sent to re-education camp, and ordered to provide quarterly “compliance reports” to show that he is sufficiently servile to the lords of political correctness.

As we have pointed out before, it is Fischer who insists that "violating the First Amendment is something only Congress can do." Needless to say, neither of these cases has anything to do with Congress so, by Fischer's own logic, nobody's First Amendment rights are being violated since that "is something only Congress can do."

How Fischer repeatedly fails to understand the basic fact that he cannot claim that the First Amendment can only be violated by Congress and then turn around and also complain that the First Amendment is being violated by things that are not Congress is beyond comprehension.

Gordon Klingenschmitt's Bizarre Understanding Of What Constitutes 'Imposing Religion' Upon Students

Last month, a public school teacher sued his Colorado school district for allegedly allowing school officials to openly promote Christianity to students, claiming that a local pastor is regularly allowed to use the school's public address system to "preach his evangelical Christian messages" and that prayer meetings, Bible studies, and Christian events are held during school hours.

Among the complaints listed in the lawsuit is the allegation that this local pastor also hosts weekly Bible study session on campus over the lunch period, which students refer to as "Jesus pizza."

And Gordon Klingenschmitt, who happens to be a Republican member of the Colorado state legislature as well as a Religious Right activist, is outraged ... at this teacher for objecting, declaring on his most recent "Pray In Jesus Name" program — without a hint of irony — that teachers "don't have a right to impose religious views upon the students."

"If you don't want to attend their 'Jesus pizza,' that's fine," Klingenschmitt said. 'You don't have to attend, but you don't get the right to sue to attend their 'Jesus pizza' because you're a teacher. Let the students organize themselves and have their own event. That's what the Supreme Court rules!"

Aside from the fact that this teacher is not suing for the right to attend these religious events but rather to put an end to them, Klingenschmitt is bizarrely arguing that it is perfectly fine for school officials to sanction and promote Christian events during school hours whereas efforts to stop that from happening is an effort to "impose religious views upon the students."

Diversity vs. Scalia at Marriage Oral Arguments

Bringing her own experience to the bench, Justice Kagan helps Justice Scalia with a point that should have been obvious to him.
PFAW Foundation

PFAW Member Telebriefing: Preview of Upcoming PFAW Foundation Report, The Supreme Court in the Citizens United Era

Yesterday, PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin previewed his upcoming report, The Supreme Court in the Citizens United Era, during a member telebriefing. Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon also joined the call to answer questions from members and discuss PFAW efforts to promote fair and just courts. Drew Courtney, Director of Communications for PFAW, moderated.

To kick off the call, Raskin reviewed another period during which the Court granted unprecedented constitutional rights to corporations. Lochner v. NY, Raskin explained, began an era in which government at every level was prevented from interfering with corporate contracts—and thereby prevented from passing sensible health and safety regulations.

Today, said Raskin, we’re in an analogous period, with the Supreme Court now using the First Amendment as an excuse for expanding or inventing the political and religious rights of corporations. This time, it’s beyond what we’ve ever seen before; the Citizens United and the Hobby Lobby cases both demonstrate how the Court is putting the interests of corporations over the rights of people and making it more difficult to hold corporations accountable for their actions. Other cases allow corporations to insulate themselves through a host of legal immunities while at the same time, they’re able to spend unlimited amounts of money  influencing who gets elected to office.

In responding to a question from a PFAW member, Baker outlined the two key ways to fight the Court’s trend of empowering corporations over people: Elect Presidents who will nominate, and Senators who will confirm, Justices who share the ideology that corporations shouldn’t be favored in their legal rights over people; and amend the Constitution, which PFAW and other groups are working on now. She also directed PFAW members to and to get more involved in these issues.

You can listen to the full telebriefing here:

PFAW Foundation

Bryan Fischer's Incoherent Theory Of The First Amendment

For years now, the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer has doggedly argued that the First Amendment only applies to Congress, meaning that no entity other than Congress could ever exceed its limitations or violate the rights it protects:

First, the amendment applies only to Congress. "Congress shall make no law..." No other entity is restrained by the First Amendment. Since the amendment applies only to Congress, it is legally, historically and constitutionally impossible for a state, a county commission, a city council, a school board, a school principal, a school teacher or a student to violate the First Amendment. This is for one simple reason: none of them is Congress. Violating the First Amendment is something only Congress can do.

Despite the fact that Fischer has time and again insisted that "the First Amendment applies only to Congress," he is now inexplicably fuming that the firing of Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran is somehow a violation of the First Amendment:

Cochran has been stripped of every right that is cherished and protected under the First Amendment. His freedom of religion, gone. His freedom of speech, gone. His freedom of the press, gone. His freedom of association, gone. When I say that homosexuality is the enemy of freedom, the First Amendment, and virtually the entire Constitution, this is what I’m talking about.


Cochran is considering legal action, as well he should. Either the First Amendment means what it says, in which case Cochran has an unassailable legal argument, or the Constitution doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s about time we found out the answer to that question.

As we have noted before, Fischer insists that "violating the First Amendment is something only Congress can do," and since local government is not Congress, he has no grounds to complain about any non-congressional entity supposedly violating the First Amendment.

According to Fischer's own well-established theory, his entire complaint that the city of Atlanda violated Cochran's First Amendment rights is utterly incoherent considering that the city of Atlanta is not Congress.

The AFA Suddenly Decides The First Amendment Applies To More Than Just Congress

It seems as if the entire Religious Right is in high dudgeon right now over a situation in which lawyers representing the city of Houston sought to subpoena sermons from local pastors as part of a lawsuit filed by anti-gay activists in response to the rejection of their petitions calling for a referendum on a newly enacted anti-discrimination ordinance.

The city has already backed down, but that is not stopping Religious Right groups from hammering away at city officials and using the issue to promote their persecution complex, even if doing so undermines their own previous stances, as it does with groups like the American Family Association.

Today the AFA climbed on board the outrage bandwagon, sending out an action alert slamming Houston Mayor Annise Parker and urging activists to contact her to voice their outrage over this purported violation of the First Amendment:

The mayor is demanding that sermon notes, emails, videos, and any negative comments about homosexuality or the mayor herself, be turned over to her. If the pastors refuse, the mayor has threatened to charge them with contempt of court and possible fines or jail time.


The mayor is using intimidation, threats and bully tactics in an attempt to silence anyone who will not embrace her lesbian lifestyle.

Does the First Amendment mean nothing to Mayor Parker? Does religious freedom and freedom of speech mean nothing to Mayor Parker? Does the people’s petition process mean nothing to Mayor Parker?

This is a rather odd position for the AFA to take since Bryan Fischer, the AFA's Director of Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy and the organization's primary spokesperson, has repeatedly gone on record stating that the First Amendment only applies to Congress.

In addition to asserting that the First Amendment only protects Christianity and not other religions like Mormonism or Islam, Fischer also insists that the First Amendment was designed only to constrain Congress, which means that state and local government are not bound by its language prohibiting the establishment of an official religion or interfering with its free exercise.

Fischer has made this case time and again while arguing that local government are free to discriminate against non-Christian religions or appear to explicitly endorse Christianity, asserting that both are perfectly constitutional since the First Amendment applies only to Congress:

First, the amendment applies only to Congress. "Congress shall make no law..." No other entity is restrained by the First Amendment. Since the amendment applies only to Congress, it is legally, historically and constitutionally impossible for a state, a county commission, a city council, a school board, a school principal, a school teacher or a student to violate the First Amendment. This is for one simple reason: none of them is Congress. Violating the First Amendment is something only Congress can do.

If the First Amendment only applies to Congress when it comes to establishing or discriminating against religion, as Fischer contends, then logically it must also only apply to Congress when it comes to restricting the free exercise of religion. And if that is the case, then city officials in Houston could not have possibly violated the First Amendment rights of local pastors by subpoenaing their sermons due to the simple fact that they are not Congress.

Fischer has repeatedly said on his AFA radio program and written on the AFA's website that "violating the First Amendment is something only Congress can do." If that is true, then why is the AFA now fuming about city officials in Houston supposedly violating the First Amendment, since that is not even technically possible, according to the organization's primary spokesperson?

Roberts Court Strikes Down Clinic Buffer Zone Law

With the Chief Justice writing the majority opinion, the Roberts Court votes to strike down a Massachusetts clinic buffer law.
PFAW Foundation

Sarah Palin So Clueless About First Amendment Even Fox News Has to Set Her Straight

Palin has been pushing her flawed interpretation of the First Amendment in defense of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. Watch!

What Persecution Looks Like

Nothing like putting things in perspective.

At the end of a week in which Religious Right leaders, cable TV pundits, and conservative politicians acted as if freedom were being destroyed because a rich TV star was suspended for making offensive racist and anti-gay comments, the Parliament in Uganda passed a bill that threatens gay people with life in prison.

And with that vote, all the alarmist bluster about persecution from Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal and every Religious Right leader who saw a chance to boost year-end fundraising by jumping on the martyrdom bandwagon was made to look ridiculous.

This week’s news gave us plenty of evidence about real persecution, and it had nothing to do with Duck Dynasty. The face of persecution is not Phil Robertson, but the terrified LGBT people in Uganda who fear that they are about to be hunted.  Persecution looks like gay teenagers in Russia being beaten by thugs, and like gay parents who have the ability to leave Russia fleeing because anti-gay political leaders are threatening to take their children from them. Persecution looks like LGBT people all over the globe whose lives and freedom are threatened by new laws that enshrine discrimination and define them as criminals. Persecution looks like LGBT teens in Jamaica facing vigilante violence.  And on and on.

Newsweek reported a week ago that Ethiopia had declared war on gay men this year, noting, “A representative from the Ethiopian Inter-Religious Council Against Homosexuality announced that the council was making ‘promising’ progress in convincing the government to introduce the death penalty to punish ‘homosexual acts.’”

How do American conservative religious and political figures respond to this kind of persecution? Not with shouts of outrage but with enthusiastic cheering. It is no small irony that many of those most loudly screaming "persecution" over Robertson's suspension have been equally vocal supporters of international efforts to literally criminalize homosexuality. 

Brian Brown, Pat Buchanan, Matt Barber, and a sad parade of other religious conservatives fawn over Russia’s violently anti-democratic strongman Vladimir Putin as if he were Christendom’s new Defender of the Faith. Putin, in Barber’s words, is being allowed to “out-Christian our once-Christian nation.” (Of course many American Christians want nothing to do with Barber or his interpretation of the faith.)

And to their lasting shame, American Religious Right leaders’ financial and political support have been inflaming anti-gay passions in Uganda for years.  Lou Engle and Scott Lively actually traveled to Uganda and helped rally support for the bill. The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, who takes such umbrage at FRC’s designation as a hate group, dismissed criticism of the Uganda law in its earlier and more sinister incarnation, calling the proposed law an effort to “uphold moral conduct.”

There’s no indication that the Uganda bill’s passage is causing any noticeable soul-searching among the far right.  Far from it. The American Family Association’s always-repellant Bryan Fischer invoked the Duck Dynasty flap in celebrating the passage of the anti-gay law in Uganda: “Uganda stands with Phil. Makes homosexuality contrary to public policy. It can be done.”

Actually, as offensive as Phil Robertson’s statements were, they pale in comparison to Fischer’s. Robertson hasn’t suggested, as far as I know, that gay people should be arrested and put in prison for life. And I seriously doubt that Robertson has ever traveled to Russia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, or Australia to promote legal discrimination against and criminalization of LGBT people or anyone who advocates for equality, the way right-wing figures like Engle, Lively, Brown, Mat Staver, Peter LaBarbera, Paul Cameron, and others have.

No worries about the Olympics on the American Right.  In fact the Illinois-based Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society is excited about having its 2014 “World Congress of Families” summit in Moscow, which they see as a new stronghold for “traditional values” against the secular moral squalor of Western Europe.

Conservative activists were prepared to see Phil Robertson as a victim of religious persecution because they’ve been primed for years with the “religious liberty” narrative being pushed by Religious Right leaders and their conservative Catholic allies. They portray criticism as persecution. They equate being on the losing side of policy debates with being under the heel of oppression. And when courts and legislatures struggle with the challenge of balancing religious liberty with other constitutional values like equality under the law, they see only black-and-white battles between good and evil.

Their rhetoric cheapens and distorts the meaning of terms like tyranny. Anti-religious persecution is a violent, heartbreaking reality for Christians in many parts of the world. But not for the privileged and powerful figures in the United States who wrap themselves in the mantle of martyrdom.

The next time you hear some talking head on Fox talk about persecution, think about people in the Central African Republic who are caught in sectarian violence verging on genocide. Or think about LGBT people whose lives and freedom are threatened every day in the name of Christian values.  

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DC Circuit Strikes Another Blow Against Working People

The DC Circuit says a rule requiring businesses to inform workers of their legal rights unconstitutionally forces businesses into compelled speech.
PFAW Foundation

Shredding the Constitution in North Carolina

North Carolina legislators introduce a resolution declaring that the state can establish a religion and that federal courts can't declare laws unconstitutional.

Richard Mourdock and the Supreme Court

If Mitt Romney wins the election, his Supreme Court justices would empower far-right politicians like Richard Mourdock to codify their religious beliefs into law.
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