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Ian Lind • Online daily from Kaaawa, Hawaii

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Controversy brewing over academic freedom at Hilo High School

February 17th, 2013 · 45 Comments · Education, Politics

A Hilo High School teacher who invited longtime Christian peace activist, Jim Albertini, to speak to several classes about public participation in democracy, has been told they will be barred from meeting in the school library unless “the presentation will be strictly informational with zero negative slants” about U.S. military or foreign policy.

The restriction on library use was bluntly stated in an email on Friday from librarian Amy Okuyama to Joseph Watts, the teacher who organized Albertini’s appearance on campus.

Okuyama wrote:

Thank you for this outline of your speaker’s topic and your class objectives. I welcome any speaker in the library for educational purposes. But in this case, the speaker is a “well known activist”, and (I now find out that) the topic is the military. As a “military mom”, I request that the speaker stick to the topic as described here, and not deviate to personal negative opinions/attacks on the military, its actions, or its presence anywhere, with instructions on how students can or should protest the military, etc. in any manner. I can’t opt out of my library and be forced out of my own work site and I won’t be subjected to anti-military speeches as had once occurred w/another speaker in here. My son was deployed at the time and it was extremely upsetting to me; Mr. Dircks said he wouldn’t permit it to happen that way again.

Okuyama’s email, as well as Watts reply, are posted on the website maintained by Malu ‘Aina, an organic farm and “spiritual community” near Hilo founded by Albertini three decades ago.

Okuyama’s position appears contrary to the Department of Education’s “Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” adopted way back in 1974, which guarantees freedom of expression and communication:

Students shall have the right to hear and express publicly, various points of view on subjects without fear of reprisal or penalty.

Watts responded that the teachers would move Albertini’s presentation back into their classrooms if necessary.

It doesn’t appear that Hilo Principal Robert Dircks has yet taken a position on the controversy despite Okuyama’s reference. Hopefully he’ll take steps necessary to assure students have the opportunity to hear dissenting views.

Albertini’s response was straightforward:

My presentations will be critical of the military presence in Hawaii and U.S. wars abroad and I hope to instill critical thinking and questioning in students as well, even of my own presentation. Does speaking out for peace and being critical of government policies constitute “negative viewpoints?” To me, respectful dialogue is an important part of participation in a democracy. I hope I can encourage and motivate students to become responsible, politically engaged citizens, and speak out for justice, peace, and the future of their world. I would suggest that if this is not acceptable in the Hilo H.S. library, we switch the site of my presentations.

Then he added a good question:

I wonder if military recruiters and ROTC instructors have similar difficulties making presentations.

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