Tyranny! Censorship! Fascism!

One of the things that causes me continual amazement, and often annoyance, is the hyperbolic throwing around of terms like the ones used in the title of this post. People are quick to claim the mantle of victim and at assert that we live in oppressive times. I find it odd that people who live in a time and place that is as free and as rich as ours can cry oppression at the drop of a hat. They seem to have no grasp on what real oppression and tyranny might look like.

Let me give you an example I stumbled on today. It concerns children’s book author Patricia Polacco. I don’t know her from Adam, but came across this story and was dumbfounded. I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the School Library Journal article on the controversy with Polacco’s hyperbolic and outraged Open Letter on the subject.

I found it ironic that this author apparently lacks a basic understanding of the First Amendment and the normal process of doing business. I am not sure who is sympathetic to her ridiculous rant, but I for one can’t take her seriously. I won’t subject everyone to this silly imbroglio, bu if you find this topic interesting, click below.

Here is how Polacco tells the story:

A few months ago I was approached by The Buchanan Associates in Dublin, OH to appear at the International Reading Association Conference in Chicago on May 2 and 3, 2006. I was to be part of 5 events. Speeches, ‘meet and greet’ and book signings.

I was happy to accept the invitation which, I assumed, was coming from the I.R.A. and my publisher. It is always such an honor for me to speak and interact with teachers and librarians from around the country.

But then a very disturbing turn of events transpired. My staff started receiving phone calls and emails from this firm in Ohio requesting that I furnish them with a detailed written outline of what I intended to include in my speeches. I assumed, of course, that this was asked so that a synopsis of my content could be included in a printed brochure furnished to the conferees.

You can imagine my astonishment when I finally called this firm and learned that this was not the reason. They requested my written outline because their ‘client’ wanted to make sure that I would not discuss my deep concern about NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND MANDATE…as well as my concern that there is a link between this mandate and the SRA/McGraw Hill Company who manufactures, prints, and profits from the sale of these tests to school systems all over our country.

It was then that I closely reviewed all of the emails (I had not up until this time because I had been doing school visits and was not home until now). I then realized that the “client” that this firm referred to, but never names, was indeed, SRA/McGraw Hill! I also learned from the Officials of the IRA that SRA/McGraw Hill was indeed sponsoring the event that I had been invited to. I was shocked!

This “firm” insisted that my speech be “upbeat, non-controversial, and non-political”…I countered with the fact that the plight of the American teacher is far from “upbeat” and they are caught in the vice grip of the most controversial and political LIE that has ever been perpetrated on the American teacher.

First of all, notice how she fails to mention any contract and that she “assumed” the request was coming from the IRA and her publisher when the invitation didn’t come from her publisher or the conference. Crucial facts are they not? But here is a good clue that we are not dealing with logic or precision: “the vice grip of the most controversial and political LIE that has ever been perpetrated on the American teacher.” She doesn’t say “a policy I oppose” or a “harmful and misguided policy”. No, it is a LIE and one perpetrated on the American Teacher!

She goes on to say that NCLB “is laying wasted to our schools.” Now, far be it for me to cast stones when it comes to grammar and punctuation, but if you were writing an open letter to teachers and librarians – and posting it on the web for all the world to see – wouldn’t you take the time to make sure you fixed the errors?

Not content to rant about NCLB, she goes on to say that:

The cancellation was the choice of SRA/McGraw Hill and was generated by a blatant attempt to CENSOR my remarks and the content of what I say to teachers. Which is a clear infringement of my constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Why do people seem to think that the 1st Amendment is involved any time they are prevented from saying whatever they want whenever they want? Does she really not understand that when a private company invites you to speak to a private group it in no way involves the constitution? Here is a little tip. If you sign a contract with someone to speak on a certain topic then it is perfectly within their right to ask you to honor that contract! You do not have a constitutional right to say whatever you want on someone else’s dime.

And there is nothing particularly suspicious about a company not want to have an author get into controversial political topics. Or that a publisher of education books and materials would make money providing schools with material they need to meet a federal standard. I might not trust the publishers opinion on the law itself if they have a financial interest in its continuation, but that doesn’t mean they have no right to sponsor an event that avoids political topics. If you don’t like it, don’t speak at their event.

The school library journal article explains the dust up rather well. It is a typical balanced media article that outlines both sides with even and non-judgmental tones . But what is funny is how ridiculous Polacco’s claims are given that she was offered a sizable amount of money to speak for a very short time and yet she shouts accusations of censorship and a violation of her rights because she wouldn’t honor her contract:

A K–12 division of McGraw-Hill that sells educational products aligned with NCLB’s accountability requirements, SRA says Polacco signed a two-page contract in February specifically outlining two topics that she was to speak about: the heroes who have made a difference in her life and the real-life experiences that have influenced her books, says Tom Stanton, director of communications for McGraw-Hill Education.

“Two weeks before the conference, she reneged on our agreement and wanted to use the sessions as a political platform for herself,” says Stanton, adding that Polacco was to be paid $2,500 a day to speak at two 30-minute presentations on May 2 and 3.

[. . .]

“It’s straightforward. It involved a signed contract with [Polacco], but she chose to speak on topics that we felt were inappropriate for a forum like IRA.”

Again, I have to ask why we should take these people seriously? How many of you out there would take five grand to speak for an hour while avoiding controversial subjects? How many of you think that refusing to honor your contract in such a situation is censorship or a violation of your rights? This woman is supposedly a respected and highly esteemed author and illustrator and yet she comes off to me like a raving loon. I understand the concerns about federal mandated testing, etc. There are intelligent critics of NCLB, but Polacco isn’t one of them.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Kevin surely you know that teachers are not grading on punctuation these days in fact the mere intent of content is enough not content itself and i hope you know that forcing students to follow outdated ruleswhyamispacingbetweenwordsanyway

  2. Name a damn subject.

    Gimme a week and for five thouand Georges an hour I’ll become sufficiently conversant in it to give two incredibly scintillating 1/2 hour monologues.

  3. You make several valid comments, Kevin, but, on other hand, as far as I can tell (and maybe I don’t have enough information beyond what’s included through your links) it was only after signing the contract that she was told her remarks should be “upbeat, non-controversial, and non-political.” It’s one thing to agree to speak on the subjects specified, but another to be told what the tone should be or what one ought not to say. Shouldn’t Polacco have been informed in advance that these restrictions would apply?

  4. Dan,

    I agree that we don’t know exactly what the contract said or when it was signed etc. But the company is a more believable source at this point in my mind.

    I very well could be that the agency was heavy handed or overly vague initially or didn’t handle it well. I don’t know exactly how things progressed. But this still doesn’t mean that any rights were violated or that she was censored.

    I think it is perfectly fine for a company to want to avoid controversy and political subjects. They wanted Polacco to speak as a well known children’s author not as a political activist. Reading her letter do you think their concerns were unfounded?

    If she signed a contract to speak about “the heroes who have made a difference in her life and the real-life experiences that have influenced her books” but insisted on delivering a diatribe against NCLB then the company had every right to dis-invite her. She had every right to refuse and complain, just not pretend that she was censored and that her first amendment rights were violated.

    If Polacco had merely complained in sensible terms and tones that she was disappointed that the conference was trying to avoid important debates and unwilling to upset the conference sponsor I could understand. But she is elevating a private contract dispute to a constitution violation. If she wants to gain sympathy then she should more fully explain what happened and attempt to do so in coherent terms.

  5. “They wanted Polacco to speak as a well known children’s author not as a political activist.”

    But their own actions seem to have brought out the activist in her. If they didn’t want political remarks, they should have told her that when offering her the contract. (Although perhaps they did, and I just don’t know that.)

    I agree with you that the whole thing has nothing to do with the constitution. That doesn’t mean she has no reason to be upset.

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