US fails to protect the human right to read, says report

29 September 2014


In a submission to the UN Freemuse and NCAC document violations of freedom of information and expression in public schools, jails, and prisons in the USA.

In a new report to the United Nations assessing the United States’ compliance with its human rights obligations, Freemuse and USA based NCAC, the National Coalition Against Censorship, argue that the U.S. must do more to protect the rights of youth in public primary and secondary schools as well as the rights of inmates in jails, prisons, and detention centers.

“The right to read and to experience art is protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” stated Ole Reitov, Executive Director of Freemuse. “The covenant guarantees the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds ‘in the form of art.’ The U.S. must honor its obligations to its vulnerable citizens under the care of state institutions.”

The joint submission to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the U.S. was prepared by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), a New York-based alliance of more than 50 national organizations, and Freemuse, It is the first report of its kind to concentrate on freedom of artistic and cultural expression in the U.S.

The submission documents how hundreds of books are removed or banned from primary and secondary public school classrooms and libraries each year. Among them are acclaimed works such as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Challenges to books are often brought by a single family or local citizen with moral and religious objections to their content, NCAC and Freemuse report. School boards often lack formal policies for reviewing and responding to these challenges, leaving broad discretionary powers to school administrators and other officials.

“Although the federal government has a limited role in education,” commented Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programs for the NCAC, “much more could be done. A good start would be a ‘key policy letter’ by the Secretary of Education encouraging school districts to adopt formal review policies to ensure greater transparency and fairness.”

The submission also documents widespread censorship in U.S. jails, prisons, and detention centers, citing the proliferation of “postcard-only” correspondence policies and the banning of works about Botticelli, Cezanne, Da Vinci, Matisse, Michelangelo, Picasso, Rembrandt, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Vemeer from Texas state prisons on grounds of “sexually explicit images.”

Among other recommendations, NCAC and Freemuse call on the Offices of the U.S. Attorneys to investigate the protection of incarcerated persons’ freedom of expression and call on the Obama Administration to submit for ratification the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides in Article 31(2) for “the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life.”

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Media coverage

» The Guardian – 26 September 2014:
Censorship of books in US prisons and schools ‘widespread’ – report to UN
Free-speech organisations find US government is ‘failing to protect the rights of its most vulnerable citizens’ as popular books – including Shakespeare – are banned from institutions. By Alison Flood

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