Saturday, September 26, 2009

Texans Stand Up for Freedom

Growing opposition to banned books, banned ideas, and banned marches in San Antonio

San Antonio, TX. - by John Stanford

The San Antonio Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the San Antonio Public Library will sponsor a Banned Books event on October 1 that will have a special importance for all of Texas and for folks in other states as well. This free event will take place at the downtown Central Public Library at 7 p.m. and will feature remarks by local authors Jay Brandon and Bárbara Renaud González and by San Antonio ACLU Chapter President Patrick Filyk. Brandon and González will speak about how censorship affects them as writers. Filyk, an attorney, will discuss the ACLU's support of the First Amendment, why it is so important, and how banning books in high schools is a threat to our freedoms.

The ACLU will distribute its 13th annual report, Free People Read Freely: A Report on Banned and Challenged Books in Texas Public Schools (during the previous school year). Attendees will get a chance to read passages from their favorite books that have been banned, challenged or censored in Texas public schools.

In recent years the majority population of Texas -- including workers, young people, African-Americans, the indigenous Chicano or Mexican American population -- have been a special target of ultra-conservatives that seek to censor and restrict their freedom of knowledge and speech. These forces have sought to use Texas as a testing ground for ideas and policies they want to impose nationally.

Struggles around the contents of school textbooks are an example. In Texas the contents of school textbooks are determined by a 15-member State Board of Education (SBOE). Half the Board is elected every two years. The contents of textbooks for different grade levels and different subjects are adopted on a staggered schedule, and the textbooks adopted are usually used for several years. Because Texas uses so many textbooks, the economics of the publishers means that textbooks adopted in Texas will be used in many other states.

A big struggle around the contents of science textbooks in Texas just ended. The forces of darkness -- is this not an accurate description? -- wanted "creation science" put on the same level as evolution. The teaching of evolution won by a single vote, though the victory was not complete and there are still some loopholes in the SBOE adopted standards. The ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Texas Freedom Network (TFN) are among the organizations most responsible for this victory.

The SBOE is now in the process of adopting standards for social science and history textbooks. Should Cesar E.Chavez and Thurgood Marshall be included in the texts as role models? Some "experts" hired by the SBOE have said they are not role models and that there is an "over representation of minorities" in current standards.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, spoke here Sept. 14 at Temple Beth-El to a community meeting sponsored by Planned Parenthood and Texas Freedom Network. She held up a health textbook now used in the schools and read some of its instructions about how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases: "Respect yourself. Choose friends who are a positive influence. Go out in a group. Get plenty of rest.” It's a big book, she said, but has not one word about the use of condoms.

The SBOE that will result from next year's election, it was pointed out at this meeting, will decide on the standards for health textbooks that will be used for the next ten years. Some candidates for SBOE positions have already declared their intentions to run.

The struggle against the banning of books from school libraries is closely related to the struggle against the substitution of religious dogma for science in school texts; to the suppression of the role of African Americans, indigenous Chicanos and Mexican-Americans and other minorities in the struggle for freedom throughout our history; and to the suppression of information about sexual and reproductive health care.

On Sept. 8 President Barack Obama spoke to the schoolchildren of our country about the importance of putting in the hard work necessary to succeed in school. He spoke truth to the students, but textbooks also need to tell the truth. Young people know when they're being lied to, or will soon find out, and lies do not motivate them to succeed.

The First Amendment in addition to guaranteeing freedom of speech prohibits abridging "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." In spite of this provision of the U.S.Constitution, on November 29, 2007, the San Antonio City Council adopted an ordinance that charges thousands of dollars for the right to march on the city streets. Of the ten largest U.S. cities, only San Antonio charges people to march. If the City of San Antonio decides to "sponsor" the message of a march applicant, fees are waived. Otherwise, even after a discount the ordinance gives for First Amendment marches, the cost to march will range from about $2000 to upward of $30,000.

As soon as the vote on his ordnance was announced, community activists and free speech advocates marched from City Hall to the Federal Court House, where Attorney Amy Kastely filed a suit against the City of San Antonio, the Mayor, City Manager, and Chief of Police on behalf of the International Women's Day March Planning Committee and the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition as plaintiffs. The suit asked for a temporary injunction against the enforcement of the ordinance and summary judgment against the City.

There have been many twists and turns in the legal proceedings in the two years since the suit was filed. The ACLU filed an Amicus brief. Judge Xavier Rodriguez granted a temporary injunction against the City and declared part of the ordinance unconstitutional. The City amended the ordinance but left the exorbitant fees. Judge Rodriguez recused himself shortly before the case was to come to trial. The new judge in the case, Fred Biery, granted the City summary judgment without dealing with any of the arguments raised by the plaintiffs. The International Women's Day March Planning Committtee and the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition (FSC) have filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit.

Community opposition to the ordinance has continued growing. Yard signs and bumper stickers read: "Our Streets Will Not Be Silenced! ¡Las Calles No Se Callan!" The San Antonio Free Speech Coalition usually meets twice a month, has active committees, consists of hundreds of individuals and more than seventeen organizations, including Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, Esperanza Peace and Justice Committee, Food Not Bombs - San Antonio, Fuerza Unida, Martinez Street Women's Center, National Association of Public Employees, Neighborhoods First Alliance, Pax Christi, peaceCENTER, San Antonio Health Care Now, Southwest Workers Union, Stonewall Democrats of San Antonio, Texas Indigenous Council, Texans for Peace, Texas Media Empowerment Project, and World Can't Wait! Drive Out the Bush Regime!

On August 8 of this year the Free Speech Coalition held a rally on Main Plaza in front of City Council Chambers. There were plenty of signs and banners, beating on plastic buckets, and a program of street theater. Enthusiasm in the crowd increased. Someone yelled, "Let's take it to the streets!" and 400 people disregarded police instructions to stay on the sidewalks and spontaneously took over Commerce Street, one of the city's main downtown streets. Critical Mass cyclists corked the cross streets to give the marchers protection without the need for expensive wooden barriers. Many union tee shirts were visible in the march, especially the red tee shirts of UNITE-HERE.

The marchers walked from Main Plaza to the middle of Market Square, where they held a rally. The many speakers at the rally included former City Councilwoman Maria Antonietta Berriozábal, Professor Antonia Castañeda, national AFL-CIO Executive Vice-President Emerita Linda Chavez-Thompson, San Antonio Central Labor Council President Rachel Hernandez, and Gabriel Morales, Grand Hyatt worker and UNITE-HERE member who has since been fired because of his union activities. The Grand Hyatt hotel is built on choice lots owned by the City, received tax abatements and other financial help from the City of San Antonio, promised neutrality towards union organizing but has renigged on this promise and has become one of the most active anti-union employers in the city.

From Market Square the marchers went to historic Plaza del Zacate (Milam Park), where they held another rally before dispersing.

Freedoms to read, think, speak and march continue to be under attack, but the fightback is growing.

John Stanford is a member of the ACLU in San Antonio and can be reached at

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