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School Librarian Takes Exception With Anti-War Presentation

February 19, 2013, 7:32 PM HST (Updated February 20, 2013, 11:35 AM)
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A presentation on “participating in democracy” by a local peacenik scheduled for March at Hilo High School has already stirred a spirited debate.

Joseph Watts, a social studies teacher at the school, invited local anti-war activist Jim Albertini to speak before his and several other teachers’ classes on March 6 and March 8.

According to an email exchange, copies of which have been posted on Albertini’s website for Malu ‘Aina, his Center for Non-Violent Education and Action, Watts secured permission from the Hilo High principal and librarian for Albertini to speak to students at the school’s library.

But that was apparently before the librarian, Amy Okuyama, found out the identity of the speaker and the topic on which he intended to speak.

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In an email to Watts, Okuyama said she welcomes “any speaker in the library for educational purposes.”

“But in this case, the speaker is a ‘well-known activist’ and (I now find out that) the topic is the military,” her email said. “As a ‘military mom,’” her email continued, “I request that the speaker stick to the topic as described here and not deviate to personal negative opinions/attacks on the military, its actions, or its presence anywhere, with instructions on how students can or should protest the military, etc. in any manner.”

Okuyama’s email said a previous speaker had spoken on a similar subject at a time when her son was deployed as a service member which was “extremely upsetting” to her.

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“I can’t opt out of my library and be forced out of my own work site and I won’t be subjected to anti-military speeches as had once occurred w/another speaker in here,” she said.

“I respect Mr. Albertini and the freedom of speech, but within the library, I want assurance that he will be objective and factual,” she said. “I’m concerned that this will not be the case for the simple fact that Mr. Albertini not known for his objectivity and is very out-spoken about his views.”

Okuyama suggested that Watts should have sought a “more ‘academic’” speaker such as a “college lecturer or other expert.”

“I’m skeptical of how/what this activist will say to a group of impressionable youngsters,” she said, suggesting that the arrangement to provide the students with an “opt-out” letter proves Albertini is controversial.

One school official told Big Island Now that the opt-out letter is standard procedure in such cases and gives parents the option of requesting that the student be given an alternate assignment.

In an email to Watts, Albertini said he was offended at Okuyama’s comments, and at the fact “… she wants to act as the library gatekeeper and censor of what I can and cannot say in my presentations ….”

“I hope to instill critical thinking and questioning in students as well, even of my own presentation,” he said.

Albertini acknowledges that his talk will address the military in Hawaii, which he described as “the most heavily militarized group of islands in the world.”

“Does speaking out for peace and being critical of government policies constitute “negative viewpoints?” his email said.

Albertini noted that he has been pursuing his mission of peace for more than 40 years, including spearheading an anti-war protest at Hilo’s federal building every Friday since the day after the 9/11 attacks, which was 596 weeks ago.

He has also spent time in federal prison stemming from a 1984 incident in which he and several others jumped into the harbor in front of an arriving US Navy vessel. Albertini and the others said they did it to protest not only the military presence but also the fact that the nuclear-capable warship was entering a nuclear-free county as previously designated by the Hawaii County Council.

Albertini said he has spoken to Watts’ students before when Watts taught at Waiakea High School.

In an email to Okuyama, Watts said if the library wasn’t available, Albertini could make his presentation in a classroom.

Reached today at school, Watts declined to comment on the matter other than to say that he intended to work the matter out “so it is not an issue for the school.”

Hilo High Principal Robert Dircks was not at the school today and was unavailable for comment.

However, Albertini said that this afternoon he received an email from Watts saying that the teacher had discussed the matter with Dircks and the presentation would go ahead as planned.

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