Banned Books Awareness: The Daily Newspaper

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Satire and editorial cartoons have been a part of political commentary since colonial days; Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die” (1754), on the need for unity in the American colonies, is an early example. It has become such an integral part of social dialogue that the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning has been awarding the year’s best since 1922.

The wit of cartoonists like Tom Toles, Mike Thompson, and the widely-popular Doonesbury strip by Gary Trudeau have amused and engaged readers for decades with their humorous take on the issues and subjects of the day, often poking fun at both sides of the debates.

Doonesbury is well known for its politically-motivated storylines; so much so that while some newspapers print the strip on their regular comics page, most publications place it with similar strips on an adjacent page, or in their Opinion and Editorial section.

The controversy of late is that Doonesbury has been censored because of recent storylines aimed at the birth control debate. The series of strips, which ran from March 13-17, can all be viewed at gocomics.com.

New Jersey’s Star-Ledger found itself faced with whether or not to replace the strip with reruns, or to pull it altogether. In the end the powers that be decided to publish the controversial run in Doonesbury‘s regular space on the opinion page. The editorial board addressed the reasons for their decision in an open commentary.

“What’s happening in Texas is no laughing matter,” The article states. “Women in the Lone Star State are being humiliated and shamed, forced to undergo an onerous process before obtaining what is still legal in the United States: A safe abortion. The important thing to keep in mind is that Trudeau is working from the facts. And that- not the comic strip format itself- is the most disturbing thing of all.”

The entire editorial can be read here.

For whatever reason, the topic is being made into a focal point of the coming Presidential election. The scary fact is that the right to address Congress on the subject is objected to; that is simply unacceptable. If one side wants to make a subject an issue of a political campaign they must also agree that both sides of that issue must be given equal time on the proverbial soapbox.

That isn’t the only incident to cross newswires lately. The editor of a high school newspaper is learning first-hand that there are those who think the right to freedom of the press should have its limits.

Whatever your local schools may call it, courses such as civics and social studies teach the leaders of tomorrow about the importance of the First Amendment, and put that to practice in the production of a low-budget student-run publication.

An Illinois parent is threatening to sue his local school district over an editorial and associated cartoon that did not run in the Richwoods High School newspaper.

Daniela Vidal, the editor-in-chief of “The Shield,” wrote an editorial headlined “Sagging pants? How about a sagging relationship between the students and the administration?” that detailed a rise in texting, fights, and disruptive behavior in the hallways. She called on students to stop jeopardizing their education by making “foolish decisions” and called on administrators to “lay down the law and enforce it well.”

The editorial was pulled from the December issue of the paper and not allowed to see print.

After Heber Vidal, Daniela’s father, filed a grievance with the School Board earlier this month, school administrators conceded and allowed the editorial to run, without the cartoon. Daniela and her father say that’s not enough.

Though students received the go-ahead from the district to run the editorial, they have not decided if or when they will do so.

The Vidals are contemplating filing a lawsuit if the District doesn’t apologize publicly to the paper’s student editors, permit publication of both the editorial and cartoon, and require the school administrators involved in making the censorship decision to reimburse the district, with their own money, for the cost of printing and reprinting the December issue three separate times before it was distributed to students.

“All we wanted was for them to enforce the policies more,” said Daniela Vidal, referring to what she had described in the editorial as lax enforcement of the dress code, cellphone usage, and discipline policies.

District 150 spokesman Chris Coplan stated that the principal, after consultating with the administration, made the decision to remove the editorial and cartoon because they were “disruptive to the educational process.”

According to policy, publications can’t include content that is inappropriate in a variety of ways, including libelous, obscene, or that is “materially disruptive to the educational process.”

Immediately after the initial complaint was filed, upon a further review by the principal and central office, in consultation with legal counsel, they decided that the editorial did met district standards, but the cartoon did not. Hmmm, imagine that.

Another editorial, written by a different staffer, questioning President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from the Middle East also was pulled.

Daniela Vidal said the principal insinuated the cartoon was racist. The cartoon depicts a boy standing in the hallway wearing baggy pants, a girl texting and a boy defacing a locker.

A subsequent letter from the editor in the February issue discussed the censored editorial. “For the first time in its history, an administrator stopped distribution of an already-printed paper,” Daniela Vidal wrote.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said it is rare for a student to take legal action in a censorship case and “incredibly rare” to make a school board admit a principal made a mistake. It is also rare, he added, for a principal to censor a pro-discipline editorial.

“But it’s not at all unprecedented,” he said. “What schools will censor sometimes boggles the mind.”

The students have a strong legal case. The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that principals or school districts have total editorial control over student-run newspapers. Schools have to have a “legitimate educational justification.”

Vidal’s father is a Colombian immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen who takes Constitutional rights seriously. The incident, he said, “Sends the wrong message. That’s the main reason we don’t want to let it go with just publishing the article.”

What does that say about a society when a naturalized immigrant is more willing to stand up for the rights of the land that generations of its citizens take for granted on a daily basis?

Satirical cartoons may well be one of the last arenas of open and honest discourse. Because of that, censorship has no place in today’s newspapers.

The objective, straightforward facts have been replaced with flat-out personal opinion, and many are blissfully unaware of the difference. Entire news organizations even make it a mission not to objectively report the news, but to present all commentary in a politically-affiliated tone.

It used to be that the daily newspaper was a beacon of truth, reporting history’s events as they happened in an unbiased manner. The news was the news- placed on the front page, straightforward and fact-based; the opinions and commentary on such news was rightfully placed off of the front page in an editorial section, and labeled as such. It provided the catalyst for an open and respectful dialogue about many of the issues reported on. In recent years the line between the two has become so obscured that it has been completely erased in some cases.

I am reminded of the scene in Good Morning, Vietnam where world news would ticker off of a machine, to be censored by two stoic Army men armed with red pens. Once the line was drawn, it never happened. End of story.

We’ve seen many examples of a trend toward revisionist history; and now there’s a simultaneous trend of barring dialogue and opinion on the news. Will it all result in a day when CNN, Fox News, and your local news networks are all off the air; and our only connection to the outside world are news briefs approved by red-pen-wielding men in a government office, and provided in quick sound bites between episodes of American Idol and Jersey Shore?

Whether a voiced opinion is conservative, liberal, religious, or political is beside the point. A democracy is marked by an open discussion of the issues and all sides must be given a chance to be heard. In the end the only question that matters is whether or not you pick up the black pen or the red pen. The choice, as always, is yours.

 

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html

Sources: Wikipedia, Detroit Free Press, Washington Post, Journal Star, Spokesman Review, Coloradoan
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

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