Is there a difference between putting pressure on government and on a non-governmental agency? And what, for these purposes, IS government? Should a university, which guarantees academic and artistic freedom, capitulate to pressure put on it by a generous donor? Should an activist organization make policy decisions based upon what may or may not appeal to funders? Should a political party?
I confess to being an avid watcher of the Danish TV series Borgen. In the most recent episode, the leader of a new political party has to decide whether to accept major funding from a bank magnate or to decline the funding because it comes with strings attached. The banker wants to help determine the party's financial policy.
With his funding, the leader can pay her workers and provide them with free coffee in the office. Without the funding, she will need to depend upon volunteers and people will have to buy their own coffee. I won't spoil the ending of the episode, but suffice it to say, the party leader shows some gumption.
York University has long been a place where intense, lively and heated debate about important issues takes place. It has been a focal point in Canada for demonstrations about conflicts in the Middle East. To say that the administration, faculty and student body have been divided over the Israeli-Palestinian debate is to seriously understate the case.
Two years ago, a wall poster was put on display in the York University student centre. At the bottom of the picture appear the words for peace and justice in multiple languages. In the foreground of the picture there is a figure of a person, shown from the back and likely a man, who is wearing a Palestinian scarf and holding rocks behind his back.
In the background there is a hilly landscape with a building, a tree and a piece of machinery with smoke coming from it. There are no other human figures in the picture, so it is a bit difficult to determine what is happening.
Paul Bronfman is incensed that this picture, which he refers to as anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic hate propaganda, is displayed at York University. He wrote an open letter to Mamdouh Shoukri, president of York University, demanding that the picture come down or he will withdraw significant funding for an important program that benefits students in York's cinema and media arts programs.
Mr. Bronfman is on the boards of a number of film-making operations, and he is also chairman and CEO of Comweb Corp and William F. White International, as well as the chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios.
Mr. Bronfman has been quoted as saying, "The upshot is that if that poster is not gone by the end of day today then William F. White is out of York. York is going to lose thousands of dollars of television production equipment used for emerging student filmmakers, access to technical people who do education and student training and student seminars, workshops and open houses at William F. White Center that help them develop the hard skills needed to fill industry infrastructure positions like gaffer or grip: they will no longer be invited. York University will be persona non grata at William F. White international until they take that poster down."
Mr. Bronfman has every right to make his demand and every right to donate or to withdraw funding. But should he? And should York University accept funding that is contingent upon agreeing to remove a controversial piece of art?
Academic and artistic freedom are at the very heart of university existence. Without the ability to explore and express ideas that are troubling and even transgressive, universities would become mills that deliver pre-approved doses of information in community sanctioned packets. Such institutions would challenge no one to think critically, nor to rise up against injustice. I do not imagine that this is the kind of institution Mr. Bronfman and the film companies he represents would support.
I have no idea whether president Shoukri likes or dislikes the poster, whether he approves or disapproves of its message -- nor do I really care. I do hope, however, that he and his colleagues can stand up to Mr. Bronfman's challenge.
If our universities do not demand independence from partisan influence -- whatever its source, however well-intentioned -- we are all of us in trouble. As my late colleague A. Alan Borovoy often said, "The freedom of no one is safe unless the freedom of everyone is safe."
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Although author Ray Bradbury has been quoted stating that Fahrenheit 451 (Ballentine, 1953) was not about censorship, the dystopian novel is set in a society where reading is banned and books are burned. This book is found in many high school curricula and is a good starting point for discussion.
The newest title dealing with censorship is the graphic story Americus (First Second, 2011) by MK Reed & Jonathan Hill. When local Christian activists are trying to get Neal's favorite fantasy series banned from the Americus public library on grounds of immoral content and heresy, quiet & shy Neal along with youth services librarian Charlotte Murphy finds themselves leading the charge to defend the mega-bestselling fantasy series. Best yet the book is currently being serialized online at saveapathea.com.
The Landry News (Atheneum, 2000) by Andrew Clements focuses on the First Amendment & Freedom of Speech. It shows the responsibility a journalist, even a student journalist, has when writing about an individual and the possible effects it may have on a person's life.
Arthur and his friends wait for the latest Scare-Your-Pants-Off Club book to hit the library shelves. When the book arrives, crowds of kids rush over-only to be told that the series has been banned! Arthur, Francine, Buster, and the rest of the gang make a plan.
The often challenged Chris Crutcher works in the banning of book into the plot of The Sledding Hill (Greenwillow, 2005). It is interesting to note that the fictional book challenged in the story is Warren Peece by the "relatively obscure" author Chris Crutcher.
The Tales of Huckleberry Finn is the center of this story by Nat Hentoff. Published by Random House in 1983. It tells a story of a small but vocal group of students and parents who decide that the book is racist, sexist, and immoral and should be removed from reading lists and the school library. Barney, the editor of the school's paper, takes matters into his own hands. He decides to print his story about previous censorship efforts at school. He's sure that investigative reporting and publicity can help the cause. In 1987 it was made into a CBS School Break Special.
Regarding the Fountain: A Tale in Letters of Liars and Leaks (HarperCollins, 1999) takes censorship to the arts. A story about a controversial middle school drinking fountain designed by artist Florence Waters. This mystery is told in letters, faxes (remember it was written in 1999) and newspaper articles.
Places I Never Meant to Be (Simon & Schuster, 1999) is a collection edited by Judy Blume of short stories edited by often challenged authors gives personal insights on censorship. Although out-of-print, it is worth finding at your library or used bookshop for the stories by now deceased authors Paul Zindel, Norma Klein and Norma Fox Mazaer.
Nancy Garden's The Year They Burned the Books (FSG, 1999) will be found on several Teen GLBT book lists but there is a censorship plot element. Jamie Crawford is editor of the high school paper who takes on conservative school board candidate who opposes the sex education curriculum and it also has a "library book burning."
Although out-of-print Betty Miles' Maudie and Me and the Dirty Book (Knopf, 1989) is still available in many libraries. It is a story of two sixth New England sixth graders who choose to read a picture book to a group of kindergartens that causes an uproar.