NCAC Names 2016 Free Speech Defenders (and Offenders)

November 18, 2016
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This year has proved to be a turbulent in many regards — a sentiment most poignantly felt within the free speech community. From increasing controversy regarding Facebook’s nudity policy to a whole community coming together to defend the children’s picture book I Am Jazz, the National Coalition Against censorship compiled a list of 2016′s top 16 free speech defenders (and offenders).

Here are a few standouts…

Facebook logo

Facebook Content Policy (Offender)

Whether it’s a photo of a Danish national treasure, a British satire magazine, or an Indian cartoonist’s latest comic, the number of blocks made by Facebook noticeably increased in 2016, and free speech advocates have been taking an active role in protesting the social media giant’s vague content policies.

The issue came to a head in September when the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph “The Terror of War” was abruptly deleted for violating Facebook’s nudity policy. The famous photo, which depicts a nude young girl fleeing from a napalm attack in 1972, was used in a post by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland in a post about “seven photographs that changed the history of warfare” and resulted in the temporary suspension of Egeland’s account as well as a notice from Facebook asking that the photo either be removed or pixelized for its inclusion of a nude minor.

In response, an open letter was sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him to reevaluate the photo and uphold Facebook’s mission statement to “make the world more open and connected” based on the historical significance of the photograph.

Shortly thereafter, the photo was reinstated, but this instance is just one in a long list of cases where free speech advocates and community members have called on the site to revise and better manage their stringent policies.

Here are just a few previous examples of overreach in Facebook’s content moderation:

Eleanor & Park

Senator Amanda Chase and the Chesterfield, VA Controversy (Offender)

In June, a handful of parents in Chesterfield, Virginia, began a months-long campaign to have Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, Coe Booth’s Tyrell, and Walter Dean Myer’s Dope Sick removed from their public school’s summer reading list.

Calling the books “vile,” “pornographic,” and “trash,” the complaint ultimately resulted in in a formal review as required by district policy, but not before state senator Amanda Chase became involved and demanded that the librarians who selected the books to be fired and warning labels added to books on her state’s summer reading lists to warn parents of any “controversial” books.

In August, CBLDF joined a coalition with NCAC to urge school administrators to not succumb to the kneejerk reaction and add warning labels to books. Senator Chase immediately responded to the letter, but ultimately a review of the three books by Chesterfield County School District saw justice for the freedom to read, and a vote kept the books on library shelves.

Here is some of the coverage of this ultimately victorious battle:

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Shakespeare Books & Antiques Banned Book Display (Defender)

Banned Books Week is normally a time to build awareness of the countless number of books that have been challenged over the years for their alleged “controversial” content. Shakespeare Books & Antiques in Ashland, Oregon, was doing just that by setting up a display of titles that have been banned in the United States.

Included in the display were the 1937 novel Little Black Sambo and Mark Twain’s seminal classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—books that have been historically criticized for their depictions and treatment of race. Instead of being embraced, the local Oregon Shakespeare Festival boycotted the display, calling it “hurtful and offensive.”

The boycott of the store unfortunately led to its closure, but not before CBLDF, NCAC and other free speech organizations sent a letter enumerating the value of having displays like that at Shakespeare Books & Antiques and the detriments of silencing the productive conversations that can result from awareness of controversial books.

In response, The Oregonian further discussed the dangers of banning books and reminded readers of Scott Parker-Anderson’s famous quote that “those that forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Jazz

Mount Horeb Community Stands with I Am Jazz (Defender)

In late 2015, the Mount Horeb Area School District in Wisconsin abruptly canceled a reading of the children’s book I Am Jazz after the Liberty Council, a conservative Christian nonprofit, threatened the district with a lawsuit.

The book is based on the childhood Jazz Jennings, who shared her experiences as a transgender youth looking to find herself within her family and community. The reading was planned because a child in the community was undergoing the same transition. The Liberty Council would have none of it though, claiming that the district didn’t have the right to “miseducate children with what essentially amounts to propaganda and mistruths.”

In response, the reading was cancelled, but the Wisconsin community didn’t cower. Instead, they took matters into their own hands and set up two separate readings in support of the book. Moreover, CBLDF joined NCAC in a letter sent to the board of education expressing concerns over the initial cancellation and asking them to protect students’ First Amendment rights.

Support for the book quickly grew beyond Wisconsin’s geographical boundaries as 3,500 people participated in a nation-wide reading of I Am Jazz, proving that the limited views of one group of people shouldn’t stop everyone from enacting their right to free speech and expression.

Check out some of the additional coverage on the Mount Horeb case as well as other I Am Jazz news:

To read the full list of NCAC’s 2016 Top 16 Defenders and Offenders, click here.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!

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