At Union's Convention, 'Paradoxes' of Free Speech

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Miami Beach--Aiming to bolster its stand against censorship, the National Education Association adopted a measure here calling on its members and a union publication to monitor attacks on such First Amendment rights as freedom of speech.

But the first group the union may have to report is itself.

In actions its president conceded were paradoxical, the union at its annual convention this month followed up on its policy condemning censorship by adopting others seeking a ban on so-called "hate" video games and barring from nea periodicals advertisers that do not adhere to the union's anti-bias policies.

Under a separate policy adopted by the board of directors in May, meanwhile, the Boy Scouts of America were ousted from the convention exhibition hall and some delegates were prohibited from displaying certain materials opposing abortion.

The board policy is targeted at outside groups that diverge from official nea positions. If strictly applied, union officials acknowledge, the policy could have unintended effects--for instance, by preventing future exhibits by the Educational Testing Service and the College Board because of differences with the nea on testing issues.

No Apologies for 'Paradox'

The delegates' stance on the video-game and advertising issues was "a paradox," said Keith B. Geiger, president of the n.e.a. "I don't apologize for it. I don't try to explain it."

Calling the union one of the "biggest supporters of freedom of speech and freedom of the press," Mr. Geiger said the specific issues involved created a dilemma for the delegates.

As for the board policy that led to the ejection of the Boy Scouts and the limits on some anti-abortion materials, Mr. Geiger maintained that the new rules were intended to preempt attempts by delegates to outlaw booths sponsored by specific union caucuses, such as members who dispute the nea's stand in favor of abortion rights.

In essence, the rules prohibit organizations from exhibiting at the convention if they in any way stand in opposition to union policy. Moreover, the rules bar nea delegates themselves from exhibiting materials at the meeting that run counter to union policy and that are produced by outsiders.

Boy Scouts and Abortion Foes

The Boy Scouts, whose booth featured a display of Boys' Life magazine and a drug-education curriculum guide, were asked to leave on the last day of the exhibition.

Blake Lewis, the national spokesman for the Scouts, said members of the union's gay and lesbian caucus had visited the booth on the previous day to tell the organization it should not be exhibiting there due to its ban on participation by homosexuals and girls and its requirement that members pledge an oath to God--positions that conflict with nea anti-discrimination policies.

The next day, Mr. Lewis said, a union representative asked the Scouts to leave. Mr. Lewis said his organization had no intention of debating with the n.e.a. its longstanding policies.

In the second incident, materials the union's anti-abortion caucuses wanted to display were banned by convention officials. Of 11 buttons the Educators for Life and Respect for Life caucuses sought to display, the union prohibited 5 for having been produced by outsiders. Of 23 pamphlets and brochures submitted for the approval process, 8 were barred, including a price list of materials.

Christine Nowak, chairman of the Respect Life caucus, said that attempts to suppress abortion foes' speech are not unusual for the union. In fact, she asserted, at past conventions anti-abortion signs have been pulled down and members expressing such views have been harassed at microphones.

"N.e.a. has to stop censoring its own members," Ms. Nowak said. "N.e.a. has a tradition of free speech. They should practice what they preach."

The anti-abortion materials were "the only literature that we have stopped from [being] handed out this year," said Richard Nuances, the n.e.a.'s manager for convention operations. He said the policy mandating that delegates produce their own materials was a protection against subterfuge by outside groups advocating changes in union policy.

Ms. Nowak and her caucus tried to get a resolution passed that would have prevented interference with exhibits. By a parliamentary maneuver, debate was shut off and the item was removed from consideration.

On another speech-related issue, the Representative Assembly passed, without debate, a legislative amendment supporting federal legislation "to ban the import, sale, and distribution" of "hate" video games.

Press reports in recent months have described foreign-made games that simulate, for example, Nazi violence against Jews.

Move's Irony Suggested

Citing attempts in the past by fascist regimes to prejudice their people against minority groups, supporters of the measure said such videos are produced with those aims in mind.

But one protester later suggested that it was ironic the 8,500 delegates had voted to support such a ban without considering that one safeguard against fascism is freedom of expression.

The next day, the union's legislative body unanimously adopted a policy barring from union publications advertisers that do not adhere to n.e.a. policies against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other such factors.

In the lone question from the floor, an Arizona delegate sought to clarify how the rule would be enforced.

"We would not be able to monitor all of [the advertisers]," said Mr. Geiger. "We have to assume they ... would be honest."

If the union received a complaint about an advertiser's noncompliance, he said, an investigation would ensue.

Vol. 10, Issue 40

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories