Art as Activism: Indigenous Artists’ Responses to Nuclear Exposure

May 26, 2022 @ 7:00 pm 8:30 pm

Art As Activism

This presentation focuses on international Indigenous artists’ responses to the impacts of nuclear testing, accidents, and uranium mining on their communities and the environment. Manuela Well-Off-Man, chief curator at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, will present.

Indigenous artists from Australia, Canada, Greenland, Japan, French Polynesia (Tahiti), and the United States with American Samoa and Guam combine tribal knowledge with Indigenous and contemporary art as a visual strategy to address the long-term effects of nuclear exposure.

There are over five hundred abandoned uranium mines and mills on Navajo Nation and Pueblo lands in New Mexico alone, and most of them are unmarked. Native American miners worked in the uranium mines without any protective equipment and have been living in houses constructed from contaminated material, exposed to toxic winds and polluted water. Many of them have died because of uranium-related illness. Exposure to uranium and nuclear poisoning is a serious issue for Indigenous communities worldwide.

The talk takes a closer look at the creative responses of these international Indigenous artists to this deadly legacy.

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About Manuela Well-Off-Man

Manuela Well-Off-Man is an art historian and chief curator at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

She previously served as curator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture. With more than 20 years of curatorial experience in museums and galleries, she has curated national and international contemporary Native American art exhibitions.

Well-Off-Man received her Ph.D. in art history from the Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany, and her M.A. degree in art history, archaeology and pedagogy from the University of Cologne, Germany. She has authored numerous exhibition catalogue essays, magazine articles and blogs on American art.


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Brewing a Boycott Book Talk with Dr. Allyson Brantley

May 12, 2022 @ 7:00 pm 8:30 pm

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Allyson P. Brantley will discuss her book, Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism (published with the University of North Carolina Press in 2021).

Brewing a Boycott tells the story of one of the longest-running consumer boycotts in U.S. history, the boycott of Coors beer. From the 1950s to the 1990s, union members, progressive students, Black and Latinx activists, Native Americans, feminists, and members of the LGBTQ+ community built powerful coalitions to challenge the alleged anti-unionism, discrimination, and conservative politics of Coors Brewing Company and the Coors family.

Brantley will discuss this exciting history and explore the significance of the consumer boycott as a solidarity-building tool and an expression of First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, and petition.

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About Allyson P. Brantley

Allyson P. Brantley (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County.

She studies, teaches, and writes about social movements, labor, and Latinx history in the late 20th century United States. S

he received her Ph.D. in History from Yale University in 2016 and she is a 2020-2021 Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.  

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Hong Kong: Freedom Under Attack

April 28, 2022 @ 7:00 pm 8:30 pm


Currently on display at the First Amendment Museum is a copy of the last edition of the famous Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily. 

Founded by Hong Kong freedom of speech and freedom of the press advocate Jimmy Lai in 1995, Apply Daily was shuttered by the Chinese Communist Party in 2021. Its demise symbolized the death of the free press in Hong Kong and is just one of many assaults on the universal freedoms of Hong Kong citizens by the Chinese Communist Party. 

Join the First Amendment Museum as it hosts Hong Kong experts Chi-Sang Poon, Michael C. Davis, and Mark Simon for a panel discussion on the situation in Hong Kong and why it matters to free people around the world.

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About panelist Mark Simon

Mark Simon, a Virginia native, has been involved in media since his days as Media Board Chairman in University. After a brief stint as an intelligence analyst with the US Navy, Mark came to Hong Kong in 1992 and started a career in shipping, and also began to write once again. Over the years Mark has written for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Post, and was often a guest on radio and television from Hong Kong.

Mark joined Jimmy Lai in May 2001 at Apple Daily. He has held positions with the Next Digital Group, Apple Daily’s parent, from General Manager, and Chief of Crime News, to Group Director.

Mark sees himself primarily as a businessman as over the years he has also taken on roles in private equity and real estate. Yet, even up until when he had to leave Hong Kong in the spring of 2020, Mark was still writing his column, “Second Opinion”, a column that by Comscore was Hong Kong’s most-read English language column inside Hong Kong’s largest news media platform, Apple Daily.

About panelist Michael C. Davis

Professor Michael C. Davis is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, a Senior Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asia Institute at Columbia University, and a Professor of Law and International Affairs at O.P. Jindal Global University in India.

Long a public intellectual in Hong Kong, he was a professor in the Law Faculty at the University of Hong Kong until late 2016. His scholarship engages a range of issues relating to human rights, the rule of law, and constitutionalism in emerging states, with frequent publication in such public affairs journals as Foreign Affairs and the Journal of Democracy, as well as academic journals. Amnesty International and the Hong Kong FCC awarded him a 2014 Human Rights Press Award for his commentary in the South China Morning Post on the 2014 Hong Kong “umbrella movement.”

His latest book on Making Hong Kong China: The Rollback of Human Rights and the Rule of Law (November 2020) is available on Amazon and from Columbia University Press.

About panelist Chi-Sang Poon

Chi-Sang Poon (潘志生) is a retired scientist from MIT where he served as a health sciences and technology visiting associate professor and then principal research scientist for thirty years.

A native of Hong Kong, he obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Hong Kong, a master’s degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a Ph.D. degree from UCLA. While at MIT, he was vocal on racial discrimination and civil rights issues and was the creator of a musical CD in memory of 9/11.

He is the author of a series of articles on defending freedom of the press and of speech under Hong Kong’s looming sedition law, which has been recently decreed as part of Hong Kong’s National Security Law.

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FREE SPEECH: A History from Socrates to Social Media

March 2, 2022 @ 12:30 pm 2:00 pm


Free speech around the world today is in retreat.

Authoritarian and nationalist figures from Narendra Modi in India to Viktor Orbán in Hungary are silencing dissenting voices in an effort to entrench power.

Even in democracies, where it is hailed as the “first freedom” and a bedrock democratic value, the free speech debate is weaponized by the political left and right, as different groups aim to curtail it on college campuses, in classrooms, and on digital platforms — undermining the very culture of tolerance and open-mindedness on which this freedom ultimately depends.

Join author Jacob Mchangama for a conversation on the global history of free speech, from the ancient world to today.

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In FREE SPEECH: A History from Socrates to Social Media (Basic Books; On sale February 8, 2022), Jacob Mchangama offers a definitive account of this transformative idea, from the ancient world to the digital age, and in the process establishes why defending free speech is so critical today. History shows that the free exchange of ideas is essential not only to the spread of knowledge and innovation, but also to upholding the values so cherished by democratic nations.

Moreover, despite contemporary debates, the practice and principle of free speech has been instrumental in ensuring the equality and dignity of marginalized and voiceless groups, while censorship and repression has been the weapon of choice of oppressors, authoritarians and supremacists.

“The best history of free speech ever written and the best defense of free speech ever made. Jacob Mchangama never loses sight of the trouble freedom causes but always keeps in mind that lack of freedom creates horrors.” 

— P.J. O’Rourke

In this sweeping history, Mchangama includes a global cast of free speech defenders, including the great liberal
philosopher John Stuart Mill, the trailblazing Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the ancient Athenian orator Demosthenes, the ninth-century freethinker al-Rāzī, the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells and the campaigner for Indian independence Mahatma Gandhi.

Through their captivating stories and others, he reveals how the free exchange of ideas underlies all intellectual achievement and has enabled the advancement of both freedom and equality worldwide.

Mchangama has spent a decade advocating for free speech in the press and as a member of the Danish government’s independent commission on free speech. In FREE SPEECH, he establishes just how much humanity has gained from the spread of this powerful idea, and just how much we stand to lose if we allow for its erosion in the digital age.

Jacob Mchangama is the founder and executive director of the Danish think tank Justitia and the host of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech. His writing on free speech has appeared in the Economist, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and many other outlets around the world. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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Virtual Event

Regulating “sticks and stones” … and free speech on social media

Guest blog post by Gene Policinski

Remember the old children’s adage: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” 

A retort to hurtful insults and harsh words that the young can sometimes hurl, the saying has picked up new impact – and irony in free speech terms – in the age of pervasive social media.

Retooled for these times, it could read “Sticks and stones do hurt my bones, and tweets encourage some to hurt me.”

Hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked across the United States, totaling nearly 3,800 hate-related incidents across all 50 states, according to a report Tuesday by Stop AAPI Hate (Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate).

Demonstrators take part in a rally to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles on 13 March. Photograph: Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators rally against anti-Asian violence in Los Angeles on March 13. Photograph: Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

Critics say crass remarks describing the COVID-19 pandemic as “Kung Flu” or the “China virus” and unproven claims about the origin of the pandemic have fueled those increased attacks.  Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has called on congressional colleagues “who have used that kind of hateful rhetoric — cut it out because you also have blood on your hands.” 

White supremacist propaganda reached new levels across the U.S. in 2020, according to a new report by the Anti-Defamation League on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. It said 5,125 cases of racist, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ and other hateful messages were spread through physical flyers, stickers, banners and posters — nearly double those noted in the 2019 report. The ADL said online instances probably totaled millions.

White Supremacist Propoganda incidents in the US 2017-2020

Increase in white supremacist propaganda incidents on and off-campus in the U.S. Source: ADL

Mass shooting in Atlanta

Mass shooting at spas in the Atlanta area. Source: WSJ

Tuesday’s mass shootings at several Atlanta-area spas in which eight people, at least four of Korean ancestry, were killed may or may not be classified as a hate crime. Police said the suspected gunman told them he has a “sex addiction.”

Regardless, the incident already has raised renewed calls for government intervention to censor posts on social media sites that might be classified as “hate speech” – from clearly racist language to images and words that prolong decades-old demeaning stereotypes. The sites currently are protected by their own free speech rights and an added layer of legal security that prevents them from being held liable for content posted on their operations.

There’s no denying the value to society of stifling hate and ridding us of racial and ethnic profiling rooted in shameful history. But the government has proven to be very clumsy and very slow as a censor.  

“Community standards” on obscenity have been difficult to define let alone fairly impose. The so-called “Fairness Doctrine” applying to broadcast TV and radio eventually failed because it produced the unintended consequence of chilling the open exchange of conflicting ideas.  When TV or radio personalities have uttered racially insensitive remarks, the “court of public opinion” reacted within days while a court of law properly took months or years to work through due process. 

And, as Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 2011 decision involving a group that protested at military funerals, “as a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” Roberts also noted such a commitment is to be upheld even recognizing “speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain.”

Still, the speed, reach and very nature of social media seems to present a new challenge to the old idea that “the antidote to speech you don’t like is more speech” in opposition.  Does hateful speech on social media create, in effect, a virtual community in which such language and imagery is not just acceptable, but with the impact of repeated echoing, has such resonance that some will be driven to action? 

The quickest solution is for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and such to act themselves to stifle dangerous posts.  But do we want secret algorithms and private panels as the sole determiners of what is dangerous, and the proper remedy of what it or they deem improper speech.

social media and free speech

Conservative commentators decry “Cancel Culture” and attack social media outlets for what they say is unfair treatment limiting conservative voices – even when such restrictions are applied to such things as clear misinformation about the effects of COVID-19 vaccinations. Liberal voices want bans on right-wing posts as racist and advancing white supremacist ideas, failing to recognize what Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson noted in the late 1940s: We sometimes need to hear ideas we find repugnant if only to be better armed to refute them.

There are other good reasons to wish the 24/7 omnipresence of social media could be restrained:  So-called “revenge porn,” instances in which family members must endure over and over reposted public images or videos of loved ones insulted, assaulted, or killed.  And then there are the kinds of societal dangers noted in a just-declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which found evidence that Russia and Iran both attempted through online tactics to influence public opinion during the 2020 presidential election.

Antitrust by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Pix4free

What to do?  Some solutions are relatively benign and hold great promise. Fostering competition in the social media sphere – either by funding startups or use of anti-trust laws – will reduce the power and impact of a few dominant Big Tech firms. Some social media companies already have taken steps to eliminate the financial rewards for posting blatant misinformation designed to produce as many “clicks” as possible. 

Public pressure, even if it’s after-the-fact, also produced results more quickly than would moves by government regulators – and can serve as an instant barometer of public opinion.  Racially-rooted jokes largely are absent in open society today not because a law was passed, but because the jokester finds quick disapproval – and for some, commercial, social or political consequences. 

We have found ways in laws openly arrived at and tested openly in the courts to prevent – or at least punish – speech deemed harmful. We can file lawsuits over defamatory remarks and the authorities can prosecute conduct spurred by “fighting words” that are outside First Amendment protection.  

There are ways to draw the fine First Amendment lines between repugnant ideas and illegal conduct: The Supreme Court has ruled that cross-burning can serve as an emblem of racist views and thus be protected speech but becomes criminal conduct when the intent is to intimidate a person or group.


Hard to make such decisions, create such laws or draw such lines? Yes. Likely to be stop-start, one-step-forward-at-a-time path to a workable system? Again yes. Likely to fall short at times and be frustratingly slow even in success? Almost assuredly. And in the end will we need to simply take personal responsibility to question what we read, hear and see?  Absolutely.

It will take that kind of creative approach, deep engagement, constant vigilance and frequent revision and revisiting if we wish to stop short of some kind of proposed instant cure like a national speech czar – an impossible job, but with the real power of the government to rule for a time over what we say or post.

Gene Policinski is a trustee of the First Amendment Museum and a First Amendment scholar. He can be reached at genepolicinski@gmail.com.


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Watch our One on 1 interview with Gene Policinski.

Check out the rest of our One on 1 series: short, in-depth interviews reveal how Americans practice and value their First Amendment freedoms, and will encourage you to do the same.

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As a part of Banned Books Week, which ran from September 27th through October 3rd in 2020, we explored the nature of censorship and banning in the United States. Each book conveys a different lesson on how censorship works in a country with an established law protecting freedom of speech and press like the First Amendment.

For that year’s theme, Maine Authors, we took a look at the works of authors with a connection to Maine, for a list of seven books in total.

Carrie by Stephen King

One of Bangor author Stephen King’s most famous novels, Carrie revolves around Carrie White, a high-school girl from an abusive religious household who uses her newly discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who torment her. It is one of the most frequently banned books in United States schools, because of Carrie’s violence, cursing, underage sex, and negative view of religion. Much of the book uses newspaper clippings, magazine articles, letters, and excerpts from books to tell how Carrie destroyed the fictional town of Chamberlain, Maine while exacting revenge on her sadistic classmates and her own mother, Margaret.

This book has been banned in Nevada, Vermont, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota. But how does banning a book work? The process of banning a book begins with the individual who is issuing the challenge, usually a parent or librarian. A challenge is “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.” A challenge is the beginning of the process towards getting a book banned, which means that many challenges do not fall through. Schools, bookstores, and libraries are the only places that can ban books that have been challenged. Once a challenge is made, the institution in question can either ban the book from the premises or deny the challenge. Bans are made on an institutional basis, which means if a book is banned in one library, it is not banned in all others.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

How could anyone ban the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon? Anne Carroll Moore was a staffer at the New York Public Library (NYPL) in 1906 and had the responsibility of supervising the children’s collections. She was also a tastemaker whose NYPL-branded lists of recommended children’s books could make or break a book’s fortunes. Moore’s taste was particular, however. When Brown’s famous book was released in 1947, Moore found it an “unbearably sentimental piece of work.” Therefore, the book wasn’t purchased by the New York Public Library, and while children were encouraged to check out all kinds of books from the library’s extensive children’s department, Goodnight Moon was not one of them. 

In part because of Moore’s blacklisting, Goodnight Moon wasn’t an immediate commercial success; by 1951 sales had dropped low enough that the publisher considered taking it out of print. The book regained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s as chains such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton grew. By 1972, the book’s 25th anniversary, Goodnight Moon was nearing 100,000 copies sold a year. Perhaps it was that anniversary that spurred the library to finally stock the book. As mentioned in the blurb above about Carrie, banning can only be done on an institutional level. In the case of Goodnight Moon, it was done on the whim of a single individual with pretty substantial consequences.

Author Margaret Wise Brown would never live to see the explosion in popularity of her book due to the tastes of a single staff member at the NYPL. Brown died in 1952. Her ashes were scattered near her island home in Vinalhaven, Maine.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter, the bane of every high school English student around the country, is a novel published in 1850 by the quintessential New England author, and Bowdoin College graduate, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Set in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony during the years 1642 to 1649, the novel tells the story of Hester Prynne who conceives a daughter through an affair and then struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. 

The book was met with almost immediate backlash upon its publication with the most vocal group of critics being Hawthorne’s neighbors themselves. Having been born and raised in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne had a lot of controversial opinions about his hometown. When the book was published, a number of prominent Salem residents protested the way Hawthorne portrayed their beloved city. Following the initial brouhaha surrounding the book, it has been challenged and banned multiple times throughout American history with one of the most recent examples being as late as 1977, when a group of parents in one school district challenged it, calling the book “pornographic and obscene.” 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Perhaps the most infamous and consequential banned book of all time is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. Stowe, who lived for a period in Brunswick, Maine, was a prominent abolitionist. Unpacking a book with as much baggage as Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be complicated but we will give it a shot. Buckle up.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin tells the story of Uncle Tom, depicted as a saintly, dignified slave. While being transported by boat to auction in New Orleans, Tom saves the life of Little Eva, whose grateful father then purchases Tom. Eva and Tom soon become great friends. Always frail, Eva’s health begins to decline rapidly, and on her deathbed, she asks her father to free all his slaves. He makes plans to do so but is then killed, and the brutal Simon Legree, Tom’s new owner, has Tom whipped to death after he refuses to divulge the whereabouts of certain runaway slaves. Tom maintains a steadfastly Christian attitude toward his own suffering, and Stowe imbues Tom’s death with echoes of Christ’s.

The book was a piece of activism on Stowe’s part and was meant to convey the evils of slavery to a national and general audience. Its anti-slavery message obviously ruffled quite a few feathers in the slave-holding Southern United States, which led to a de facto banishment in many Southern communities. Booksellers were intimidated into not distributing the book. It is perhaps one of the few books in American history that has experienced this form of censorship. A bookseller in Mobile, Alabama was forced to leave town for selling the novel, for example. Stowe herself received many threatening letters from Southern critics – one included the severed ear of a slave.  

Today, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is banned for a variety of other reasons. In 1984, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was ”forbidden” in a Waukegan, Illinois school district for its inclusion of racial slurs.  

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Charlotte’s Web proves that anything can offend someone, somewhere. Charlotte’s Web is a children’s book about talking animals written by North Brooklin, Maine, resident E.B. White in 1952.

In 2006, several parents in a Kansas school district decided that talking animals are blasphemous and unnatural; passages about the spider dying were also criticized as being “inappropriate subject matter for a children’s book.” According to the parent group at the heart of the issue, “humans are the highest level of God’s creation and are the only creatures that can communicate vocally. Showing lower life forms with human abilities is sacrilegious and disrespectful to God.”

This, unfortunately, was not the only time Charlotte’s Web was the subject of religious controversy. At a junior high school in Batley, West Yorkshire, England, in 2003, the school’s overzealous headteacher decreed that all books featuring pigs should be removed because it could potentially offend the school’s Muslim students and their parents. No such complaints were ever filed by any parent involved with the school, but the school official felt she was being proactive in her policy. Islamic leaders in the community asked the school to drop its ban, which included Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh, and the Three Little Pigs. The Muslim Council of Britain formally requested an end to the “well-intentioned but misguided” policy, and for all titles to be returned to classroom shelves. 

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

While Kafka on the Shores‘s author Haruki Murakami does not have a personal tie to Maine, this book does have an interesting Maine connection. 

Kafka on the Shore is, as described on Murakami’s website: “powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom. As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.” 

The book contains graphic language describing a sexual encounter in one chapter and rape in another. These scenes in particular drew the ire of Maine state representative Amy Arata in 2019. Arata claimed such material was inappropriate for public school students. “Society is finally taking sexual abuse and sexual harassment seriously. And this type of material is so far over the top. If you were to give this to an employee, you’d get sued for sexual harassment. Yet a teacher can give this to a kid and it’s legal,” Arata said. As a Republican lawmaker, she sponsored a bill in the Maine State House that would ban the book from schools in Maine. However, Arata’s bill was shot-down in the State House and never passed. 

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

Alvin Schwartz, the man most responsible for giving every child born in the 1980s and 1990s nightmares due to his book series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, infamous for their terror-inducing illustrations, was a graduate of Colby College in Waterville, Maine. 

The history of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is also one mired in countless attempts of censorship and faux hysteria over its supposedly inappropriate content. According to the American Library Association, the series was the single most banned and/or challenged book in the United States. Even in the 2000s, the books remained in the top ten most challenged titles. Scary Stories was criticized for, unsurprisingly, being too scary. Critics slammed Schwartz for supposedly traumatizing a whole generation of kids (perhaps with good reason). The stories themselves are certainly appropriately chilling for their target audience, serving perfectly as a kid’s first introduction to horror. Most of the tales are rooted in familiar folklore or urban legends, with influences running deep across the history of literature.

This particular kind of concern trolling is frequently evoked during attempts at censorship. “Think of the children, they’re simply too delicate and naïve to understand what fiction is.” It’s a dangerous precedent to set when one insists that depicting something is an automatic endorsement of it. Raising concerns over children is typically the easiest way to encourage censorship across the board. The other implication of this attitude is that children should never be exposed to anything that may challenge them, which is really the only way we can grow as human beings.

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