Inside the First Amendment - Public schools rethinking Halloween

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes


  Principal Orlando Taylor believed he was doing the right thing last week when he sent a letter home announcing to parents that Halloween celebrations will be banned this year at Inglewood Elementary School.
  But Taylor underestimated how many parents in Towamencin Township, Pennsylvania are emotionally attached to the annual parties and parades featuring goblins, witches and ghosts. Outraged parents denounced the ban, calling it everything from ridiculous to un-American.
  After the media got wind of the story, Taylor was transformed overnight from respectable school principal into the Grinch who stole Halloween.
  Higher-ups in the school district scrambled to quell the controversy, announcing that Taylor had misstated the policy. It turns out that teachers are allowed to have Halloween parties, but school-wide Halloween events such as costume parades must be held before or after school.
  Although the “Halloween banned” story turned out to be a bust, the media wouldn’t have to look hard to find many other districts that are moving away from Halloween-themed activities during the school day and either moving them to non-school hours or replacing them with “harvest festivals” without Halloween paraphernalia.
  This trend to de-emphasize Halloween in elementary schools isn’t driven by fear of First Amendment lawsuits — or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
  True, some images and symbols associated with “trick or treat” can be traced to ancient pagan and other religious practices. But Halloween in America has been so thoroughly secularized that no court in the land is likely to view school Halloween parties as an establishment of religion.
  What’s actually pushing public schools to re-think Halloween is the recognition that growing numbers of Christian, Muslim and other religious parents are opting their kids out of Halloween celebrations at school. A judge may not see Halloween as “religious,” but many parents see activities involving images of witches, demons and ghosts as offensive to their faith.
  Non-religious objections to Halloween are also gaining traction in some school districts. Many educators want to reclaim time lost to Halloween activities during the school day. Others worry that school parades and parties leave out poor families who can’t afford the increasingly elaborate costumes.
  None of these objections matter much to Halloween enthusiasts, as the brouhaha in Pennsylvania illustrates. Their basic message seems to be “don’t spoil the fun for my kid.”
  But when Halloween-themed lessons and activities are ubiquitous in classrooms for weeks at a time — which is the case in many elementary schools — it isn’t much fun for parents who are trying to avoid Halloween. Kids assigned to color the witches green, sing spooky songs and read about haunted houses can’t opt out without opting out of school for much of October.
  Eliminating Halloween altogether, as Principal Taylor discovered, is too unpopular, unrealistic and counter-cultural to make sense for most school districts. But toning it down — as Taylor’s district is apparently trying to do — is a good idea. Pushing costume parades to after school hours, for example, makes them voluntary for families who want to participate.
  If Halloween lessons and activities disappeared tomorrow from the October curriculum, little of educational value would be lost. On the contrary, less Halloween could mean more time to teach something that really matters.
  Even better, dialing back Halloween during the school day would send a message of respect for the beliefs and values of many religious parents.
  Yes, Halloween as currently celebrated in elementary school classrooms is constitutional. But just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C. Web: Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Another View - For many reasons, watch what you eat this Halloween

  • Written by Ill. Wesleyan University

Planning to indulge in a little chocolate this Halloween? You’re not alone; a new survey reveals nearly 75 percent of Americans choose chocolate as their favorite Halloween treat.
  When Illinois Wesleyan University’s William Munro looks at a chocolate, however, he sees more than a tempting morsel wrapped in brightly colored paper. As an expert on international food economy, Munro uses candy to teach first-year students to think critically about what they eat.
  “A candy is loaded not only with many calories, but with many different stories,” said Munro, who is the Betty Ritchie-Birrer ’47 and Ivan Birrer, Ph.D. Endowed Professor and a member of Illinois Wesleyan’s political science faculty. “Stories of taste and travel, of culture and economy, of empire and industry all converge in our mouths, making America quite literally a ‘melting pot.’
  “Chocolate has a rich, dark history,” he added, pun fully intended.
  Munro’s course “The Social History of a Candy Bar” is a Gateway Colloquia course designed to develop students’ proficiency in writing. It’s also one of the University’s cluster of liberal arts courses centered on the theme “Unraveling Inequality.”
  Munro doesn’t want his students to feel guilty about eating chocolate for societal reasons, but instead wants to increase their understanding.
  “It takes enormous resources, human and otherwise, to make chocolate,” he said. “We should look at everything we eat in the same way, with the understanding that what we eat and how we eat is shaped by a wide network of social, cultural and historical relationships.”
  The course traces the complexities of chocolate’s journey in becoming a worldwide commodity. In its early recorded history (early 19th century), one-third of the world’s cocoa supply came from Venezuela, and half of it was consumed in Spain. Today, however, 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, and 40 percent of it comes from that region’s Côte d’Ivoire alone, Munro said.
  “If you eat a chocolate kiss for Halloween, the cocoa almost certainly came from West Africa and it almost certainly involved child labor,” Munro explained. “Some of it is coerced labor, and some it is children working on family farms.”
  Large chocolate producers are now paying some attention to these conditions, Munro said, partly because civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire involved human trafficking, including child trafficking. Profits from cocoa production helped fund the conflict, Munro said.
  The sugar that gives chocolate its sweetness likewise has a global history. Localized sources of sweetness such as honey gave way to the production of sugar as a commodity crop with the colonization of the Caribbean Islands in the mid-17th century, he said.
  “Cocoa was brought from the New World, but sugar was taken to the New World and became established as a major slave crop in the Caribbean,” Munro said. Today sugar cane or beet is grown in over 100 countries, and the U.S. imports it from at least 26 countries ranging from Swaziland in southern Africa to Switzerland, Munro said.
  Chocolate could only become a mass consumer commodity through the emergence of a capitalist world economy made possible by the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Munro said. In his course, he also introduces students to the history of Cadbury’s, the British confectionery company founded in 1824, as an example of the rise of multinational food corporations.
  Munro grew up eating Cadbury’s chocolates in his native South Africa. As a political scientist during the dismantling of apartheid, his interest in state formation grew out of the questions his countrymen and women were asking in regard to what kind of social system should take its place.
  “South Africans knew very little about state formation and politics in the rest of the continent,” Munro said. He then studied in Zimbabwe, where most citizens worked the land on small-scale farms.
  “If you want to understand political change, you had to look at the agrarian system as most people were involved with that,” he added. His growing interest and expertise in the international food economy developed with his understanding of the influence of international markets and global commodity systems on African farms.

Inside the First Amendment - Our free press has rights — and also responsibilities

  • Written by Gene Policinski

  The First Amendment is very clear in its 45 words that it protects a “free press” along with our rights to religious freedom, free speech and the rights to assemble and petition.

  But the Founders, in effect, placed a responsibility on that free press in return for being the only profession named in the Bill of Rights: The news media were to be a “watchdog on government,” providing us with the facts, perspective and sometimes contrarian views that help citizens better chart the course of their government.
  One of the latest version of that centuries-old daily duty is playing out now in a Wisconsin courtroom, where a coalition of news and freedom of information groups are trying to extract information from closed court records about a previously undisclosed e-mail system involving Milwaukee County officials.
  This particular effort engages not only the watchdog role, but also the public’s right to information obtained in the course of judicial proceedings, and even implicates freedom of information laws intended to keep the public’s business “public.”
  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and others are seeking to access to public records collected during a sealed investigation of charges that included county employees campaigning on the public’s dime for now-Gov. Scott Walker, then county executive and mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate. Convictions resulting from the investigation revealed a “private” email system by which certain trusted members of Walker’s staff could communicate outside official channels open to public view and inspection.
  The use of such alternate e-mail arrangements, in which public officials conduct discussions about official business outside regular, known government e-mail systems, have been reported to have been used by federal agencies, Obama administration Cabinet officers, the New York City mayor’s office, and even by members of a New Jersey local library board.
  Laws on public records and private e-mails vary greatly across the nation, and administrative decisions and court ruling also fail to draw clear lines.
  In September, the National Archives told Congress that federal officials may use non-official addresses but that the exchanges have to be kept and made public in response to freedom of information requests. But in July, in Illinois, an appellate court ruled in City of Champaign v. Madigan that under that state’s FOI laws, private e-mails and other electronic communications are not automatically public records just because officials discuss public matters — unless the messages are sent during a public meeting. In Wisconsin, courts have ruled that emails between officials conducting the public’s business are assumed to be public records subject to the State’s Open Records Law.
  The “watchdog” role may at times require active tactics by the press, as in the court filing by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which believes the public has a right to know what kind of business county officials were conducting through an alternative email system.
  The newspaper cites long-held legal standing for the public to know what is going on in its courts, citing even an 1849 state law guaranteeing citizens the right to attend court sessions, as well as later state and federal court rulings on open courts and open records.
  “Our founders knew that citizens couldn’t make informed decisions about public policy and the job their elected representative were doing unless they knew what they were up to,’’ said George Stanley, Journal Sentinel managing editor. “We think these records belong to the public, not to government officials who might be embarrassed by what’s in them. But it’s a right you have to keep fighting for, over and over again. And all of the state’s Freedom of Information advocates, including the Associated Press, the state broadcasters and the Wisconsin State Journal are with us.”
  If successful, the motion by the newspaper and its partners to unseal the investigation’s records will let the public in Wisconsin judge for themselves whether the state’s “sunshine” laws were violated. It will mark another opportunity to set a new “openness standard” for the nation in using new technology in conducting the public’s business.
  But it already marks yet another example where a news organization — in this case, one that already has a number of Pulitzer Prizes in recent years for great reporting — also is living up to its constitutional duty to represent the public.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Guest View - Some OL officials can view vital emails but others can’t

  • Written by Dave Heilmann

PAGE-6-1-COL-Dave-Heilmann-5x7Dave Heilmann  Why are Oak Lawn manager Larry Deetjen and village attorney Paul O’Grady fighting so hard to keep certain emails they exchanged hidden from board members? They have been asked seven times by elected board members to turn over these emails, but refuse to turn them over.

  For some reason, now the mayor and certain trustees are helping them keep these records secret. At the last board meeting, [Mayor] Sandra Bury cast the deciding vote to keep these records hidden from other elected trustees.
  O’Grady’s law firm has been paid $3 million over the past three years and Deetjen over $500,000. These are not personnel files or personal records. These are emails about village business on an email network owned by taxpayers. They both charged taxpayers for the time they spent creating those emails. The Attorney General has made it clear that emails on a municipality’s email network are public records. Despite this, they are now allowed to block access to their own emails on the village network?
  Here is what happened.
  Back in May when I was still in office, I asked for certain email records between Larry Deetjen and the village attorneys because I had received multiple complaints that Deetjen improperly interfered with a million dollar contract an Oak Lawn business had with a prospective tenant, possibly for racial reasons.
  I was shocked when a village employee told me that Deetjen and O’Grady stepped in and told him not to turn over their records to me because the manager and attorney have no authority over a mayor when it comes to inspection of records. Mayors have a statutory right to inspect records under Illinois law and, in Oak Lawn, also under the village code. That law had always been followed the prior eight years. I guess they felt they could get away with not following that law because I had lost the election. I did tell the attorney and manager that they were breaking the law and violating our code and made a second request, but that was ignored.
  I don’t think we should look the other way when the village manager and attorney break the law. But that’s not why I write. The point is that records should not be kept from board members. Those are the elected representatives of residents, and if the manager is accused of harming an Oak Lawn business, the board not only has every right to, but should investigate this.
  After my requests were blocked, new requests were made for these records in May by a sitting trustee. While there is no law which would permit the manager to deny a trustee access to these records, or give the manager authority to block access, he did it again.
  Attorney O’Grady then issued a legal opinion in early June which stated that the mayor has the right to inspect all records, basically acknowledging that he advised the village to break the law when denying me access.
  After receiving that memo, Sandra Bury could easily have said to turn over the records. That was June. Nothing was turned over. Why not? Did it matter that the trustees seeking records had opposed her in the last election?
  Then a trustee tried another legal means and submitted a FOIA request to Village Clerk Jane Quinlan for those records. This was the fourth request. That was denied. The clerk’s office said it was too burdensome even though staff previously told me it’s quite simple to do. Apparently this burdensome argument came from their belief that the village attorney should be paid to review and screen his own emails (which he already charged for once) before turning them over to the board that hired him.
  The same trustee submitted a second FOIA, and the clerk’s office refused to turn over all records, this time claiming attorney client privilege. So now Sandra Bury, Jane Quinlan and Larry Deetjen are the client (because they can see the records), but other trustees are not? Does it seem fair that only certain officials — the mayor, clerk, manager, attorney — have the privilege of seeing records, while others elected by the same residents do not? I had disagreements at times with trustees, but I said publicly at the board table that all trustees should always be allowed access to records.
  After five efforts had been blocked, two trustees placed on a board agenda an item amending the village code to clarify that all trustees have the right to inspect village records, not just the mayor. The board majority and Sandra Bury denied these trustees the right to even speak on the issue at the board meeting, in clear violation of Roberts Rules of Order. Despite the improper motion, the attorney said nothing. After all, it was his records that were being sought. This was the sixth effort blocked.
  Then there was the seventh effort, again a request to amend the code to allow the elected representatives of Oak Lawn the right to review records of the village. Sandra Bury voted no. She and the majority voted to keep Deetjen’s emails hidden from trustees.
  If the manager is working only for the betterment of the community, why would he care about trustees seeing his emails with the attorney?
  The manager and attorney are on the same political side as the mayor. The attorney contributed to her political team. Now, when records are sought because an Oak Lawn business makes a serious allegation of misconduct, the mayor and board votes to keep the manager’s emails on the village network hidden from other elected officials? Isn’t there a duty to investigate the complaint openly and thoroughly?
 The election is over. But what comes with that is the responsibility of those who are elected into office to follow the law. You are now accountable, and even though others may not be in the majority or even in office, it does not mean that we lose the right to stand up for what we believe is right. Whether or not I’m in office, I do still care about the community.
Dave Heilmann was the Oak Lawn mayor for eight years before he was defeated by Sandra Bury in April.

Inside the First Amendment - To stop the madness, put a face to faith

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes

  No quick fix — diplomatic or military — will dissolve the centuries of distrust and rivalry that fuel the sectarian conflict in Syria, where Alawites and Shiites are pitted against Sunnis with Christians caught in the crossfire.

  The same can be said of the many other religious and ethnic wars raging around the globe.
  In the past week alone, Buddhists burned Muslim shops and homes in Burma, a Muslim mob stormed a Coptic church in Egypt, and radical Sunni Muslims attacked minority Shiite Muslims in central Pakistan.
  Americans may be tempted to see religious violence as someone else’s problem, living as we do in country blessedly free of holy wars for much of our history (thanks, in large measure, to the religious liberty principles of the First Amendment).
  But our angry culture wars, while rarely violent, are warning signs that no society is immune from the pernicious effects of religious division and intolerance. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hate crimes motivated by religious bias are all found in the United States today.
  Humanity faces many daunting challenges in the 21st century. But none is greater — or more urgent — than the challenge of negotiating new ways to live with our religious and ethnic differences.
  That brings me to the good news this week. While the world debates how to respond to the latest atrocity in Syria, some 800 schools in 20 countries are taking the long view by preparing the next generation to do better.
  These schools, including 100 in the United States, are part of an initiative called “Face to Faith” that is offered free to schools by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. (Disclosure: I serve as U.S. advisor to the program.)
  Face to Faith is a simple, but profound, approach to dispelling stereotypes and creating understanding across religious differences. Through videoconferencing and secure online community, students engage one another directly in civil, but robust, dialogue about issues of faith and belief that matter to them.
  It works.
  Students in Indian schools, for example, are connecting to students in Pakistani schools — an extraordinary development in a region long plagued by inter-religious animosity and violence.
  Through direct engagement, students are able to put a human face on the “other” and build bridges of understanding across religious and cultural divides.
  As one high school student in Utah put it, “the opportunity to participate in this program has blown all the misconceptions that I had out of the water and caused me to try harder to understand people from all places and circumstances.”
  Although Face to Faith is in only 100 American schools thus far, plans are underway to expand that number to 1,000 public and private American schools over the next several years.
  In a world torn by sectarian violence and hate, the success of Face to Faith is a reminder that we can — and must — do much more to help young people experience our common humanity.
  “Even though religions don’t have the same laws, beliefs and concepts,” said a student from New York, “Face to Faith has taught me that people hundreds of miles away are going through the same experiences as me.”
  Reading and math are important. But even more important are the kinds of human beings that read the books and do the math. Learning to respect one another across our deepest differences is the real work of education.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.