Free Speech in New Mexico
paul-finkelman at utulsa.edu
Mon May 24 10:35:38 PDT 2004
Daytona Beach News-Journal Online (http://www.news-journalonline.com)
Hard lessons from poetry class: Speech is free unless it's critical
By BILL HILL
Last update: 15 May 2004
Bill Nevins, a New Mexico high school teacher and personal friend, was
fired last year and classes in poetry and the poetry club at Rio Rancho
High School were permanently terminated. It had nothing to do with
obscenity, but it had everything to do with extremist politics.
The "Slam Team" was a group of teenage poets who asked Nevins to serve
as faculty adviser to their club. The teens, mostly shy youngsters, were
taught to read their poetry aloud and before audiences. Rio Rancho High
School gave the Slam Team access to the school's closed-circuit
television once a week and the poets thrived.
In March 2003, a teenage girl named Courtney presented one of her poems
before an audience at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Albuquerque, then read
the poem live on the school's closed-circuit television channel.
A school military liaison and the high school principal accused the girl
of being "un-American" because she criticized the war in Iraq and the
Bush administration's failure to give substance to its "No child left
behind" education policy.
The girl's mother, also a teacher, was ordered by the principal to
destroy the child's poetry. The mother refused and may lose her job.
Bill Nevins was suspended for not censoring the poetry of his students.
Remember, there is no obscenity to be found in any of the poetry. He was
later fired by the principal.
After firing Nevins and terminating the teaching and reading of poetry
in the school, the principal and the military liaison read a poem of
their own as they raised the flag outside the school. When the principal
had the flag at full staff, he applauded the action he'd taken in
concert with the military liaison.
Then to all students and faculty who did not share his political
opinions, the principal shouted: "Shut your faces." What a wonderful
lesson he gave those 3,000 students at the largest public high school in
New Mexico. In his mind, only certain opinions are to be allowed.
But more was to come. Posters done by art students were ordered torn
down, even though none was termed obscene. Some were satirical,
implicating a national policy that had led us into war. Art teachers who
refused to rip down the posters on display in their classrooms were not
given contracts to return to the school in this current school year.
The message is plain. Critical thinking, questioning of public policies
and freedom of speech are not to be allowed to anyone who does not share
the thinking of the school principal.
The teachers union has been joined in a legal action against the school
by the National Writers Union, headquartered in New York City. NWU's
at-large representative Samantha Clark lives and works in Albuquerque.
The American Civil Liberties Union has become the legal arm of the
lawsuit pending in federal court.
Meanwhile, Nevins applied for a teaching post in another school and was
offered the job but he can't go to work until Rio Rancho's principal
sends the new school Nevins' credentials. The principal has refused to
do so, and that adds yet another issue to the lawsuit, which is awaiting
a trial date.
While students are denied poetry readings, poetry clubs and classes in
poetry, Nevins works elsewhere and writes his own poetry.
Writers and editors who have spent years translating essays, films,
poems, scientific articles and books by Iranian, North Korean and
Sudanese authors have been warned not to do so by the U.S. Treasury
Department under penalty of fine and imprisonment. Publishers and film
producers are not allowed to edit works authored by writers in those
nations. The Bush administration contends doing so has the effect of
trading with the enemy, despite a 1988 law that exempts published
materials from sanction under trade rules.
Robert Bovenschulte, president of the American Chemical Society, is
challenging the rule interpretation by violating it to edit into English
several scientific papers from Iran.
Are book burnings next?
Hill is a retired News-Journal reporter.
Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Tulsa College of Law
3120 East 4th Place
Tulsa, OK 74104-3189
paul-finkelman at utulsa.edu
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