Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. October 6, 2023

Editorial: Book bans have no place in a free society

Pennsylvania ranks among the top states for book bans in schools. Legislators in Harrisburg must take a stand against censorship.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel about a firefighter who burns down houses that own books. The 1953 novel, which some have tried to ban over the years, is set in an unnamed city in the distant future.

In many ways, that disturbing future doesn’t feel too far removed from what’s happening right now.

By one count, there were more than 3,300 instances of banned books in public schools across the country during the last academic year — a 33% increase compared with 2021-22. Efforts to challenge and take books off the shelves have overtaken school boards and local libraries nationwide, dividing towns and pitting neighbor against neighbor.

The Philadelphia suburbs are ground zero for many of the book bans in Pennsylvania, which ranks among the top states for book bans in schools. It is a shameful distinction for a state founded by William Penn as a haven for religious freedom for fellow Quakers.

The Central Bucks school officials made national news after a conservative majority gained control of the board and began pushing book bans and prohibiting Pride flags in classrooms. Similar book ban efforts have popped up at the North Penn and Wissahickon School Districts in Montgomery County, the Pennridge School District in Bucks County, and the Downingtown Area and Oxford Area School Districts in Chester County.

The book bans are fueled by a network of conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty, which the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled “extremist.” Moms for Liberty, founded in 2021 in the wake of pandemic shutdowns and mask mandates, says its mission is to defend parental rights at all levels of government.

But it only defends the rights of parents who agree with its extreme views.

The book ban efforts mainly target books about race, racism, and those with LGBTQ themes and characters. Book ban backers — including Republican presidential candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — talk about “woke indoctrination,” whatever that means.

The book bans essentially boil down to censorship. Who are these self-appointed zealots who want to decide what books are available in schools and libraries?

There are professional educators and librarians who review age-appropriate books in schools. If parents don’t want their child to read a certain book, they can let the school know. But a vocal, politically driven minority should not tell others what they can or cannot read.

In fact, no one is making anyone read the disputed books. If anything, all the breathless attention on the books only increases interest in reading them. Not to mention that teens can access any book, and much more, via their mobile devices. All the energy to remove books from school libraries — efforts that last year were at their highest levels in more than two decades — is yet another distraction from the mission of education.

Book bans have been going on in America since at least 1637, which only underscores how ridiculous it is to still be having this debate. These campaigns are little more than attempts to limit free thought, which only leads to a society that is vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation.

Fortunately, many are pushing back on the book bans.

The Glenside Library has been encouraging visitors to read the books that the Central Bucks activists want to ban. Students, parents, and teachers mounted protests that reversed a book ban at the Central York School District.

An eighth grader in Kutztown launched a club that reads banned books and meets at a local bookstore. Similar banned book clubs have popped up across the country.

Even better, two bills that are pending in Harrisburg aim to curtail censorship efforts. State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti (D., Montgomery) introduced a measure that would essentially ban any book bans.

State Rep. Paul Friel (D., Chester), a former president of the Owen J. Roberts school board, proposed a bill that would prohibit book bans but allow parents to opt their children out of lessons or library materials that conflict with their beliefs.

In June, Illinois became the first state to ban book bans. Gov. Josh Shapiro and lawmakers in Pennsylvania should do the same.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 6, 2023

Editorial: Solitary confinement has no place in Pa. prisons, or anywhere

The evidence that solitary confinement does significant, long-term and irreversible damage only grows.

Five inmates filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging that conditions in a Pennsylvania state prison are “tortuous,” worsening or creating mental illness in those held there. All of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have spent at least a year in solitary. For one one man, according to the suit, it was roughly 12.

The lawsuit specifically focused on conditions in the State Correctional Institution at Fayette, 45 miles south of Pittsburgh. It currently holds 30-50 men in solitary confinement, also known by the euphemism “administrative segregation,” in its Security Threat Group Management unit.

It’s beyond time for this practice to end. In 1994’s Farmer v. Brennan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that solitary doesn’t violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment” unless there is proven “substantial risk of serious harm” and “deliberate indifference” on the part of prison authorities. Modern research, plus the facts laid out in the suit, clear both hurdles.

The lawsuit alleges that authorities placed inmates into confinement based on secret evidence, making it impossible for them to challenge their punishment, and offered inadequate mental health support or addiction treatment services.

It’s shameful that public institutions, which act on the public’s behalf, still treat human beings with this level of callousness — especially in the face of decades of clear evidence that solitary confinement leads to severe mental decline and anguish.

The stories in the lawsuit are harrowing: 22 hours a day locked in a cell no larger than 80 square feet with permanent bright lights and no windows to the outdoors. One hour of outdoor time may be spent in another cage, but the lawsuit claims that mental decline led inmates to refuse the option. One plaintiff said he attempted suicide more than ten times during his confinement. Others experienced paranoia, sleeping disorders and audio and visual hallucinations.

Pennsylvania’s justice system already knows the consequences of this type of treatment. In 2015, the state Department of Corrections entered a settlement agreement with the Disability Rights Network barring the use of 23-hour-a-day confinement for seriously mentally ill inmates.

What this doesn’t acknowledge is that isolation can create seriously mentally ill inmates.

A 2023 study for Social Work Research surveyed over 200 previously incarcerated adults and provided clear results: “Solitary confinement was significantly associated with higher levels of current psychosis symptoms.” Prison isolation has also been linked to more instances of self harm, difficulties in cognition, depression and PTSD.

Prison is, at least in part, about preparing incarcerated people to successfully re-enter society, and solitary confinement undermines that purpose.

Courts have also been extremely explicit in deriding the use of solitary confinement. In 2017, a Third Circuit court ruled that “in the absence of interaction with others, an individual’s very identity is at risk of disintegration.”

In other words, we know what predictably happens when people are subjected to these conditions. Now we have to recognize it in law, and choose to stop.


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. October 6, 2023

Editorial: Shapiro missed chance to meet higher standard on sexual harassment

Gov. Josh Shapiro scored a lot of his political clout in one arena — the idea that sexual abuse allegations need to be taken seriously.

As Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Shapiro stood with adult victims of child sex abuse as he unveiled a statewide grand jury’s report. He detailed decades of abuses within the Catholic Church and challenged the state’s bishops to respond with change.

“Stand up today and announce your support for these common-sense reforms. That’s the test that will determine whether things have really changed or if it will just be business as usual when the dust settles,” he said.

It was a gauntlet that needed to be thrown down. Shapiro was right to issue his challenge.

Five years later, do those words come back to him?

On Sept. 27, Shapiro’s secretary of legislative affairs, Mike Vereb, submitted his resignation. It comes four months after a May 26 complaint was filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission claiming Vereb sexually harassed another member of the administration.

A Shapiro spokesman said the administration would not comment on personnel matters but takes such accusations seriously.

If that is true, the governor has an opportunity to demonstrate exactly how he feels an organization should respond to claims of sexual harassment, assault or other mistreatment.

He did not publicly call on Vereb to resign. That follows the pattern he set with then-Democratic legislator Mike Zabel when he was likewise accused in March. Like Vereb, Zabel ultimately did resign. The House of Representatives isn’t answerable to the governor, but as his party’s top state official, there’s still an element of leadership.

In a statement Monday, state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, criticized Shapiro’s handling of the situation.

“The alleged offender remained in his influential role until he tendered his resignation, leaving the victim in an unsafe space, to fend for herself, with limited options. This is unacceptable,” Ward said.

Should Shapiro have openly called for his employee’s resignation? Should he have actually fired him? Should there have been a wait for the process to play out? It’s a tricky question because the commission’s investigations are a rather opaque process that might end in an issue being settled or otherwise resolved with no information released.

That lack of transparency is the kind of thing the Catholic Church sex abuse grand jury judged harshly, saying, “We can’t charge most of the culprits. What we can do is tell our fellow citizens what happened and try to get something done about it.”

There have to be ways to address the concerns Ward has about accusers feeling unsafe in a workplace as the accused stay on the job while simultaneously respecting due process. It wouldn’t be easy, but this is Shapiro’s opportunity to hold his own workplace to that standard.

As Shapiro himself said, “Stand up today and announce your support for these common-sense reforms.”

It’s good advice.


Scranton Times-Tribune. October 5, 2023

Editorial: Reschedule primary to make Pennsylvania a presidential player

The debate in the General Assembly over rescheduling next year’s primary opens an opportunity for a wider discussion about calendar changes that would give Pennsylvania voters greater weight in presidential primaries.

The 1937 state Election Code schedules primaries in presidential election years on the fourth Tuesday in April, later than all but 11 states and often well after candidates have amassed enough delegates to ensure nomination.

The state Senate has already voted to move next year’s presidential primary from April 23 to March 19 to avoid a conflict with Passover. The House is considering two bills, one scheduling the primary on March 19 and the other on April 2.

Some House Republicans oppose both bills, noting the latter date’s proximity to Easter Sunday, which falls on March 31 in 2024, and anticipated problems county election bureaus might have in organizing a primary as early as March 19.

Whatever date is ultimately chosen for 2024, the General Assembly should seriously consider amending the Election Code to make Pennsylvania a bigger player in presidential primaries. Because of the relatively late primary prescribed by the code, voters in the fifth-largest state in the nation rarely play a meaningful role in choosing the major parties’ nominees for president. The last truly competitive presidential primary in the Commonwealth was held in 2008, when Hillary Clinton defeated eventual nominee Barack Obama.

Given Pennsylvania’s status as one of a handful of true battleground states in presidential elections, its voters deserve a more significant voice in determining whose names will be on the November ballot.

A March primary would send Pennsylvanians to the polls on the same day as voters in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Kansas and Arizona. An April primary would match those in New York, Delaware, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

An earlier primary coupled with a proposal that would allow unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in party primaries — a reform recently endorsed by five former Pennsylvania governors — could make purple state Pennsylvania a moderating influence in our often too-contentious national politics.

Historically, the Commonwealth has played an outsized role in establishing, defining and defending American democracy.

Its 8.6 million voters deserve a similar role in choosing the men and women who will vie for the highest office in the land.



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