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Commentary

THE MAKING OF A MOVEMENT:
Youth Free Expression Network

By Stephanie Elizondo Griest

Internet filters, v-chips, “abstinence-only” education, and indecency laws are just a few of the tactics our society has employed in recent years to protect the “innocent” minds of youth. These censorial measures not only prevent young people from learning, thinking, and exploring; they deprive them of critical information on subjects ranging from human rights and feminism to drugs and safer sex.

In early May 2002, The Free Expression Policy Project – along with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at New School University – brought together 33 advocates from the fields of free expression, sexuality education, youth journalism, and media literacy, along with 10 outstanding teen writers and activists, for a colloquium to develop strategies for combating censorship aimed at minors. Our foremost goal was to brainstorm strategies that would empower young people by teaching them critical thinking skills, advancing their free-expression rights, and enabling them to participate effectively in the political process. By the end of the day, we’d done just that – and birthed a new movement along the way.

Our colloquium commenced with an overview of the many forms of youth censorship, including Internet filters, restrictions on the student press, and abstinence- only sexuality education. As Mark Goodman of the Student Press Law Center noted, censorship of the student press has increased dramatically -- his organization saw a 41 percent leap in the number of reported censorship incidents between 1999 and 2000, usually for articles about sexuality or school shootings, or critiques of school policies. Even tenured newspaper advisors are coming under the fire of increasingly conservative administrators, and those who stand up for their students are beleaguered and occasionally dismissed. Some schools have cracked down on independent media as well, including zines and students’ personal websites.

Susan Wilson of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University then gave a sobering report on the state of sexuality education in schools. As a result of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which earmarked $250 million over five years for “abstinence-only” education, young people’s access to information has been dangerously limited. “Today’s programs teach that sexuality outside marriage will have harmful physical and psychological effects,” she lamented, noting that 23 percent of teachers taught abstinence as the only way of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in 1999, compared with 2 percent in 1988. “It makes no sense to tell kids lies.”

After these unsettling presentations, we turned the mics over to the under-21 contingent, who addressed censorship from a personal perspective. Beth Covington described the three-month battle she endured with her principal, school board, and superintendent in order to publish articles about interracial relationships, homosexuality, oral sex, and divorce in her high school paper in Danville, Virginia. Moya Bailey, an activist from Spelman College, spoke of the marginalization of African Americans in the media, while hip-hop artist Diamond Pierre talked about violence in music. “When a child shoots someone else, it is not because of a song -- it is an emotional reaction to something happening in their life. They want to take revenge on the dysfunction in their lives,” she said.

Two panelists addressed a particularly painful form of censorship: the kind that comes from within. “When you ‘come out of the closet,’ you have to censor out of fear of what people will think of you,” said Tiffany Cutrone, a peer counselor at Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth. Mizgon Zahir described what it was like being an Afghan in Little Kabul, San Francisco. “Young women are not really considered people in my community – you must be male and married to get respect. So we’re censored by our own people,” she said. “And after Sept. 11, we got censored by everyone. I started getting hate mail with people telling me to ‘Go home.’ It really hurt, because I wasn’t even born in Afghanistan and have never been there in my entire life. People didn’t want to see what I was trying to communicate; they just saw me as an enemy.” She fought these silencing agents by starting her own magazine for Afghan youth: The Afghana Journal.

After the youth panel, we conducted a strategizing session on three hypothetical censorship scenarios, and then spent the remainder of the afternoon brainstorming ways to defend minors’ free expression rights in the future. We thought of creating message boards, list-servs, an information clearinghouse, and an online tool kit about youth rights, and spreading the word via high school journalism departments and after-school youth media organizations. We proposed a speaker’s bureau of youth trained in issues like media violence, Internet filters, and sexuality education, who could testify in congressional hearings and press conferences. One of our most ambitious ideas was holding a national conference on youth and censorship.

By the end of the day, our conclusion was clear: the only way to bring about these much-needed changes was for youth and adults to work together. As Tiffany Cutrone put it, “The adults can address issues from a legal perspective, but we can talk about it from a personal one.”

To accomplish this, Danya Steele of Harlem Live stressed the importance of making youth feel involved. “The best way to mobilize youth is to put them in the driver’s seat. Teach them how to make their own media – be it an online magazine or a radio show or a documentary film. This will bring our voices to the table. Teens have the audacity to tell the truth, and because of that we have the potential to change the world."

Groups co-sponsoring the May 3 colloquium on censorship and youth were the National Coalition Against Censorship, Student Press Law Center, Electronic Privacy Information Center, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, and the First Amendment Project. The Youth Initiatives Program of the Open Society Institute provided financial support. Youth arts, journalism, and media literacy organizations that participated included the Just Think Foundation (San Francisco), Wiretap (San Francisco - a project of AlterNet and the Independent Media Institute), SEX, Etc (New Jersey - a project of the Network for Family Life education), WNYC/Radio Rookies (New York City), New Youth Connections, Global Action Project, Afghana Journal (a project of Pacific News Service), and Harlem Live (New York City).

A coordinating committee and a youth free-expression listserv have been established to plan the next steps.

May 22, 2002

Stephanie Elizondo Griest is communications director of the Free Expression Policy Project.

UPDATE: YFEN now has its own Web site; see www.ncac.org/yfen


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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