Defend freedom of expression from local and national threats

Freedom of expression is currently under attack and needs to be preserved at all costs. We saw freedom of expression targeted when cyber terrorists hacked Sony Pictures on Nov. 24 and when terrorists slaughtered 12 satirists from the French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7.

These attacks were tragic. But it is worth noting that they have not had the highest impact or death toll in recent times. Just several days before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Boko Haram militants massacred over 2,000 in Baga, Nigeria. But this tragedy is not being widely covered and has certainly not inspired international outrage. Many of us had not even heard of Charlie Hebdo before Jan. 7 and would not have thought twice about missing The Interview. But these attacks got the most press in the West because they threatened Western ideals.

But Western ideals are not only threatened by extremist terrorist organizations. To find censorship, we need not look further than our own borders. The United States government actually has quite the history of censoring information. Remember that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath, two of the greatest works of American literature, have been two of the most censored and banned in the U.S.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has frequently been banned because of its use of racial slurs and purported underlying racism. Many, however, argue that the book’s satire is actually a strong criticism of racism. American author Ernest Hemingway famously stated, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” The book engages in controversial subject matter to spur critical thought, not to perpetuate racism. And critical thought is exactly what our schools should be teaching.

Censoring critical thought, however, still occurs regularly in the U.S. today. Tucson, Ariz.’s “controversial” public school curriculum that teaches Mexican-American history, culture and literature is currently under attack for its alleged underlying resentment toward other races.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction and former Arizona state senator John Huppenthal issued a letter condemning the curriculum as his final act in office.

Huppenthal reasons that the curriculum “promote[s] the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote[s] resentment towards a race or class of people,” or advocates “ethnic solidarity.” These restrictions are part of House Bill 2281, legislation that Huppenthal helped pass while serving as state senator. As evidence of the school’s violation, he cites Rage Against the Machine and KRS-One lyrics being taught in class. Huppenthal additionally references a U.S. History class syllabus which states that it “includes substantial Mexican history” and “is intended to get students to become critically conscious about the society we live in.” The Arizona state government has threatened to cut school funding if the school does not revise its curriculum.

The most ludicrous example cited by Huppenthal, however, is the poem that students in the curriculum were told to recite during the beginnings of class. It reads as follows:

“Tú eres mi otro yo. / You are my other me. /Si te hago daño a ti, / If I do harm to you, / Me hago daño a mi mismo. / I do harm to myself. / Si te amo y respeto, / If I love and respect you, / Me amo y respeto yo. / I love and respect myself.”

Huppenthal’s arguments are absurd, if not racist. The Oxford English Dictionary defines racist as “prejudiced against people of other nationalities.” Is this not a direct prejudice against people of other nationalities? His argument against multiculturalism is also hilariously McCarthyist in its inherent paranoia and lack of factual integrity. And frankly the whole “hip-hop is ruining our youth” argument is just a bit outdated. But he is entitled to his opinions, no matter how distasteful I find them.

The schools, however, are also entitled to their own opinions. If Huppenthal can attempt to ban the schools’ expression, then the schools might as well attempt to ban Huppenthal’s letter for promoting “resentment towards a race or class of people” or maybe ,just for inciting idiocracy. Why should we let Huppenthal’s freedom of expression take precedence over the school’s? Either deny him the right to censor others or subject him to the same censorship.

The website Voices in Urban Education responded to Huppenthal. The website calls the ban a “historic ignorance and blindness” and adds that “[h]uman history in this hemisphere does not begin in 1492 C.E. but rather in 3113 B.C.E. with the creation of the Mayan calendar, if not before with the Ancients in Peru.”

We demanded national response when Seth Rogen and James Franco’s comedic depiction of the assassination of the North Korean supreme leader did not go over well with North Korea.

We demanded international response when Charlie Hebdo was attacked for publishing images of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover of their magazine.

But where is our outrage when the Arizona state government suppresses critical thinking in schools?

We must be consistent. If we claim to care about expression, we should be outraged when an entire U.S. state bans teaching important history, culture and critical thinking. We cannot pick and choose. We must defend all freedom of expression if we are going to defend any of it.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s right to protest in Washington D.C., in 1963 allowed him to deliver one of the greatest speeches in modern history. His right is the same as the Neo-Nazis’ right to march in Skokie, Ill. in 1978.

Our freedom to speech is not the same as an obligation to accept the ideas we hear.

We are afforded the ability to disagree, to contest and to challenge. We are afforded the ability to think, and we had better let our schools exercise it.


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