Youth Expression Censored

Young people are being deprived of critical information on everything from drugs to safe sex. When will the censorial measures -- Web filters, abstinence-only education -- end?
Internet filters, V-chips, "abstinence-only" education, and indecency laws are just a few of the tactics 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.

Earlier this month, The Free Expression Policy Project -- a think tank on artistic and intellectual freedom based in NYC -- 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 at the New School University to develop strategies for combating censorship aimed at minors.

As one of the speakers, Mark Goodman of the Student Press Law Center noted that censorship of student newspapers has increased dramatically in recent years. 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 Web sites.

Susan Wilson of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University 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."

The under-21 contingent addressed censorship from a personal perspective. Beth Covington described the three-month battle she and fellow editors 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 of Brooklyn, NY 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 of the teen speakers 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.

The goal of the colloquium 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. Among the ideas generated by the discussion were message boards, list-servs, an information clearinghouse, an online tool kit about youth rights, and 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. All of these projects could be promoted via high school journalism departments and after-school youth media organizations.

By the end of the day, the conclusion was clear: the only way to bring about these much-needed changes was for youth and adults to work together. As 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."

Stephanie Elizondo Griest is communications director for the at Free Expression Policy Project. A coordinating committee and a youth free-expression listserv have been established to plan the next steps. To join the Youth Free Expression Network to help combat censorship targeted at minors, contact Stephanie at [email protected].
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