Jessica Beckett, a senior at North Kitsap High School in Poulsbo, has been selected to receive a Youth Activist Scholarship Award in recognition of her work for civil liberties. The $4,000 college scholarship is one of nine awarded by the American Civil Liberties Union to high school students around the nation.
"We are inspired by the passion and energy Jessica has shown in opposing censorship. She is one of the next generation of civil libertarians willing to stand up for their rights," said Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington.
In the spring of 2001, while Beckett was a junior, a parent raised objections to the North Kitsap School District over The Vietnam Reader, a book of readings used in an elective course for seniors on "The Vietnam Experience" at North Kitsap High. Beckett believed strongly that students deserved to have the subject presented as the teacher who created the class had intended. She felt that removing readings would be an act of censorship, and that class material should not be censored for all students in the class because of the objections of one group of parents.
Beckett and another student drafted a petition opposing censorship of the book and undertook to circulate it among students. Gaining permission to speak in front of classes, they garnered 500 student signatures in a single day. They presented the petition to a school administrator and attended a district instructional committee meeting to observe its proceedings on the book challenge (student testimony was not allowed). Beckett was disappointed when the committee decided to have the readings in the book removed from their bindings and photocopied for use, with four selections deleted.
Undaunted, Beckett and her allies responded by printing copies of the censored readings and circulated them among the student body with a heading "What the School Doesn't Want You to Know about Vietnam." She and her father spoke before the school board, urging it to rescind the committee's decision and reject the committee-approved censorship. The board declined to act, citing a two-week window for appeals - a policy that the Becketts had not been informed of and which some board members criticized as inadequate.
Beckett's efforts educated and mobilized other students on the danger of censorship and helped generate community discussion of the issue. "How could I claim to honor truth and let an issue like this die without a fight," said Beckett.
As a result of the controversy over The Vietnam Reader, the North Kitsap School Board has changed its policy for resolving book challenges. Beckett and the Kitsap County Chapter of the ACLU objected to the process by which the decision to censor the book was made. They pointed out that the committee took action without opportunity for meaningful input from members of the community, including students. The revised policy enables parents and all citizens to learn about requests to remove materials in time to make an appeal contesting the removal. Any teacher receiving a formal complaint about materials used in class will be required to send letters to parents of students in the class notifying them of the action. Also, the district will send letters to persons and groups who have requested notification of such challenges. Any individuals or groups will be able to attend an open public hearing and be informed on progress of the challenge.
This school year, Beckett has again been involved in speaking out for civil liberties. She wrote and distributed a flyer opposing the Administration's plans for military tribunals, and she talked about the issue to anyone willing to listen. And as a member of the school's debate team, she has focused her concerns about military tribunals to debate this year's assigned topic: "Resolved: Oppressive Government Is Better than No Government."