Hard lessons from poetry class: Speech is free unless it's critical
Ohanian Comment: This isn't just awful; it's also terrifying. Terrifying that we allow this to happen. Below are two articles about the same incident, which happened last year.
There is a legal defense fund--and you can scroll down to read part of the student poem that was deemed so dangerous.
Legal Counseling Services Trust Fund
Alliance for Academic Freedom
202 Harvard SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106
The Albuquerque Tribune
September 11, 2003
By J.M. Barol
Bill Nevins says his antiwar views cost him a teaching job in Rio Rancho. Now teaching in the South Valley, he says he wants to continue to encourage students to speak their minds.
It's hard not to at least consider the coincidences of Bill Nevins' life.
The 56-year-old teacher, suspended from Rio Rancho High School in March, came into the world at a time when free speech was at the center of a weaponless war planted in U.S. soil.
In the fall of 1947, four months after Mary Nevins gave birth to her first son, the government began purging the country of communism.
As the blue-eyed, blond baby was learning to crawl across his family's kitchen linoleum in Stanford, Conn., a group of Hollywood writers and directors were losing their jobs, being labeled anti-American and having their films blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Today, Nevins, a tall, silver-haired man whose thin-rimmed glasses magnify deep wrinkles set around his eyes, has found himself confronted with similar issues.
"There are always going to be people in power that are going to try to stop the discussion of ideas," says Eric Haas, an Albuquerque lawyer and member of the Alliance for Academic Freedom. "They're afraid of free speech. They're afraid of those ideas."
Those ideas Haas refers to include the antiwar sentiments expressed publicly by Rio Rancho poetry students earlier this year.
Nevins, who taught humanities and coached the school's poetry slam team, says his two-month paid suspension, which resulted in an unrenewed contract, came about because of those words.
Rio Rancho High School Principal Gary Tripp did not return The Tribune's phone calls for this story, but Rio Rancho Public Schools spokeswoman Kim Vesely says, "We've said it several times in the past - this is not a free speech issue."
Instead, Tripp's official response in March for Nevins' suspension was that the teacher did not fill out proper paperwork for a field trip with his poetry team.
Nevins' lawyer, Eric Sirotkin, says Tripp signed off on the permission slips in question.
"They've never admitted the reason they kept him out of the classroom is because he had encouraged students to develop opinions," says Sirotkin, who plans to file a lawsuit Monday against the Rio Rancho school system, alleging violating of Nevins' First Amendment right to free speech.
In order to raise money for Nevins' legal fees - which could range from $10,000 to $50,000 depending on how far the lawsuit goes - members of the Alliance for Academic Freedom, a group that supports free expression of teachers and students, are sponsoring a performance at the KiMo Theater on Sunday. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted.
The show will include local and national musicians, but the majority of performers will be poets reading their work.
"Poetry venues are the only place you can hear both sides to something," says Don McIver, a local poet who helped coordinate the event. "In the media, there's so much pro-, pro-, pro-, pro-, pro-war. Poetry readings are a place where the other side can be expressed."
Poetry got Nevins through a time he recalls as dark and painful.
"I was in the middle of a lesson, and I was literally pulled out of my class," he says of the day of his suspension.
No time to pack up his stuff - someone else did that for him. No chance to say goodbye to his students - he received several supportive phone calls from them but didn't feel it was appropriate to call them back.
No closure. No assurance. No light at the end of the tunnel.
"That was a real uncertain time," Nevins says as he restlessly tugs at the ends of his curly silver hair that rests on the nape of his neck. "But I assumed it was going to blow over, and they were going to ask me to come back. Because I knew I didn't do anything wrong."
Nevins, a freelance journalist and self-proclaimed poet, did a lot of personal writing during those two months. At first, the words revealed anger, sadness, disappointment.
It took about four months, he says, before he could write about peace and love and reconciliation.
"You have to spew forth some of the bile before you get to the good stuff," says Nevins, who now teaches journalism and humanities at Nuestros Valores Charter High School in the South Valley.
The anxiety that consumed him during the spring stemmed from more than his suspension. His 22-year-old son, Liam, a squad leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, was somewhere in Afghanistan leading his forces into combat, and Nevins was worried.
"We had moments when our hearts were in our throats," he says. "I saw a photo in a magazine that looked like Liam carrying a coffin. It wasn't him."
Liam has been supportive of his liberal-minded dad, Nevins says, as have his two grown daughters.
"They know I do what I do and that I'm very outspoken," he says. "They were worried about me, but I told them: `You gotta have faith.' I have a lot of friends, and so many people have rallied around me."
Teaching again also helps.
"I never have a bad day as a teacher," he says.
There's been talk about forming a poetry team at his new school, something he says is crucial in getting students to think for themselves.
"It's sad to see the Rio Rancho team is no longer there," he says of the poetry slam team that disbanded shortly after Nevins' suspension. "As a parent and a grandparent, I like to see kids encouraged in their creativity. If Liam wrote a poem, I'd want him to be able to read it out loud."
Sunday's poetry event at the KiMo gives Nevins hope that the United States is not "returning to a period of clamping down on free thought," he says.
"I think we're going to see young people and the elders speaking their minds, and we'll get to see what free New Mexico is like.
Bill Nevins is one of six Albuquerque-area teachers who were suspended during the war against Iraq.
Geoff Barrett was a contemporary issues and social studies teacher at Highland High School who was briefly suspended and docked two days' pay after displaying student antiwar art work. He returned to Highland following his suspension and later sued Albuquerque Public Schools, alleging violation of his First Amendment rights. He settled with APS, and the letter of reprimand was removed from his file and his docked pay restored. A short-term employee, Barrett's contract expired at the end of the 2003 school year and was not renewed. He teaches at Robert F. Kennedy Charter School.
Allen Cooper was a social studies teacher at Highland who displayed posters in his classroom with antiwar sentiments, including a poster from an Afghan student. A short-term employee, his contract was not renewed at the end of the school year. He is suing APS, alleging violating of his First Amendment rights and school policy. He is not teaching.
Ken Tabish, a guidance counselor at Albuquerque High School, was suspended without pay for two days for refusing to take down antiwar material in his office. He is suing APS in the same lawsuit as Cooper. He still works at Albuquerque High.
Carmelita Roybal, an English teacher at Rio Grande High School, was suspended for two days without pay when she didn't take down antiwar signs when school administrators asked her to do so. She is suing APS in the same lawsuit as Cooper and Tabish. She returned to Rio Grande this year.
Heather Duffy, an art teacher at Rio Grande High School, had a similar antiwar sign in her room, which she did not take down when administrators asked her to do so. Duffy, who was suspended with pay for two days, resigned from her teaching job in April. She is not teaching.
Here is an excerpt from Courtney Butler's poem "Revolution X," which she read over Rio Rancho High School's closed-circuit television system in February. Her poetry coach, Bill Nevins, was placed on paid leave less than a month later.
"This is the Land of the Free . . .
Where the statute of limitations for rape is only five damn years!
And immigrants can't run for President.
Where Muslims are hunted because
Some suicidal men decided they didn't like
Our arrogant bid for modern imperialism.
This is the Land of the Free . . .
You drive by a car whose
God bless America!
Well, you can scratch out the B
And make it Godless
Because God left this country a long time ago."
Hard lessons from poetry class: Speech is free unless it's critical
Daytona Beach News-Journal
May 15, 2004
Bill Nevins, a New Mexico high school teacher and personal friend, was fired last year and classes in poetry and the poetry club at Rio Rancho High School were permanently terminated. It had nothing to do with obscenity, but it had everything to do with extremist politics.
The "Slam Team" was a group of teenage poets who asked Nevins to serve as faculty adviser to their club. The teens, mostly shy youngsters, were taught to read their poetry aloud and before audiences. Rio Rancho High School gave the Slam Team access to the school's closed-circuit television once a week and the poets thrived.
In March 2003, a teenage girl named Courtney presented one of her poems before an audience at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Albuquerque, then read the poem live on the school's closed-circuit television channel.
A school military liaison and the high school principal accused the girl of being "un-American" because she criticized the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's failure to give substance to its "No child left behind" education policy.
The girl's mother, also a teacher, was ordered by the principal to destroy the child's poetry. The mother refused and may lose her job.
Bill Nevins was suspended for not censoring the poetry of his students. Remember, there is no obscenity to be found in any of the poetry. He was later fired by the principal.
After firing Nevins and terminating the teaching and reading of poetry in the school, the principal and the military liaison read a poem of their own as they raised the flag outside the school. When the principal had the flag at full staff, he applauded the action he'd taken in concert with the military liaison.
Then to all students and faculty who did not share his political opinions, the principal shouted: "Shut your faces." What a wonderful lesson he gave those 3,000 students at the largest public high school in New Mexico. In his mind, only certain opinions are to be allowed.
But more was to come. Posters done by art students were ordered torn down, even though none was termed obscene. Some were satirical, implicating a national policy that had led us into war. Art teachers who refused to rip down the posters on display in their classrooms were not given contracts to return to the school in this current school year.
The message is plain. Critical thinking, questioning of public policies and freedom of speech are not to be allowed to anyone who does not share the thinking of the school principal.
The teachers union has been joined in a legal action against the school by the National Writers Union, headquartered in New York City. NWU's at-large representative Samantha Clark lives and works in Albuquerque.
The American Civil Liberties Union has become the legal arm of the lawsuit pending in federal court.
Meanwhile, Nevins applied for a teaching post in another school and was offered the job but he can't go to work until Rio Rancho's principal sends the new school Nevins' credentials. The principal has refused to do so, and that adds yet another issue to the lawsuit, which is awaiting a trial date.
While students are denied poetry readings, poetry clubs and classes in poetry, Nevins works elsewhere and writes his own poetry.
Writers and editors who have spent years translating essays, films, poems, scientific articles and books by Iranian, North Korean and Sudanese authors have been warned not to do so by the U.S. Treasury Department under penalty of fine and imprisonment. Publishers and film producers are not allowed to edit works authored by writers in those nations. The Bush administration contends doing so has the effect of trading with the enemy, despite a 1988 law that exempts published materials from sanction under trade rules.
Robert Bovenschulte, president of the American Chemical Society, is challenging the rule interpretation by violating it to edit into English several scientific papers from Iran.
Are book burnings next?
Hill is a retired News-Journal reporter.
A former Rio Rancho High School humanities teacher alleges he was fired because of student poetry that challenged the status quo and the U.S. military.
A lawsuit filed today in state district court in Albuquerque alleges Bill Nevins' First Amendment rights to free speech were violated.
Nevins' attorney, Eric Sirotkin, says the lawsuit seeks the reinstatement of Nevins as coach of the school's poetry group.
Sirotkin says Nevins also wants Rio Rancho Public Schools to establish a policy protecting freedom of speech for teachers and students.
Sirotkin says the lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
School district officials decline comment on details of Nevins' case, saying it's a personnel matter.
J.M. Barol and Bill Hill
Albuquerque Tribune and Daytona Beach News-Journal
INDEX OF MILITARIZATION OF OUR SCHOOLS