Ordinary Heroes: Two ACLU Clients to Receive the 2001 PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award

April 20, 2001 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union is proud to announce that this year’s prestigious PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award will be bestowed upon two individuals who were clients in ACLU cases.

Alberto Sarraín of Miami, Florida and Deloris Wilson of Chatham, Louisiana, will split the $25,000 award in recognition of their courageous fights to safeguard the right to freedom of expression.

Sarraín, an independent Cuban theater producer and director, challenged Miami-Dade County’s ban on arts funding for cultural organizations that stage or produce work by artists currently living in Cuba. Wilson, a school librarian, stood up to attempts to remove books from circulation at the high school where she works.

“This year’s co-recipients are two ordinary heroes who defended freedom of expression not in an abstract arena but in their own communities, despite pressure from colleagues, community members, and neighbors to retreat or remain silent,”” said Michael Roberts, Executive Director of the PEN American Center. “”Readers, writers, and lovers of the written word everywhere owe a great debt to Ms. Wilson, Mr. Sarraín, and all those like them who stand up every day for the freedoms to read and write in America.”

Alberto Sarraín emigrated to Miami from Cuba in 1978. Sarráin’s theatrical productions have been a fixture in the Little Havana cultural scene for two decades now. With his La Má Teodora (a.k.a Cuban Cultural Group) theater company, Sarraín routinely stages cutting edge, critically acclaimed plays by Cuban playwrights both inside Cuba and in exile.

In 1996, Miami-Dade County commissioners passed an ordinance barring any company that does business with Cuba from obtaining county funds. Sarraín became one of six representatives to join an ACLU lawsuit that challenged the “Cuba Ordinance” in April 2000.

A month after the lawsuit was filed, a federal judge ruled the ordinance was unconstitutional. However, Sarraín faced hostility from within the Cuban émigré community and was left theatrically homeless when the theater that donated performance space to La Má Teodora chose not to risk losing its own county arts funding. Despite these losses, Sarraín continues to stage plays by contemporary Cuban playwrights in Little Havana.

“For a small independent Cuban theater director with everything to lose, Alberto displayed an extraordinary amount of courage in defending the First Amendment,” said Howard L. Simon, ACLU of Florida Executive Director. “He ran into countless difficulties – both professionally and personally – after joining the ACLU lawsuit against the county, but it was his passion for theater and free expression that gave him the power to continue to fight against censorship of the arts. He is a true First Amendment hero.”

On May 2, 1996, the principal of West Monroe High School in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana ordered librarian Deloris Wilson to remove four books from library shelves: Heartbreak and Roses: Real Life Stories of Troubled Love; Gays In or Out of the Military; Everything You Need to Know About Incest; and Everything You Need to Know About Abstinence. When Wilson protested the principal’s order, she was told to remove all books with sexual content from the library.

She responded by pulling over 200 books, including several Bibles, before the principal rescinded that order. Wilson then filed a formal grievance and a complaint with the ACLU of Louisiana protesting the removal of the four titles. She eventually becoming a named plaintiff in a suit the ACLU filed on October 3, 1996 against the Ouachita Parish School Board.

Enduring personal hostility and professional isolation — including being demoted — Wilson continued to document numerous instances of censorship and protested the establishment of a materials review committee appointed by the principal. Finally, on August 17, 1999, a settlement was reached that returned all four banned books to the library. Ms. Wilson continues to serve as the librarian at West Monroe High School.

“”Deloris Wilson showed remarkable courage in defending the freedom of the written word against the opinions of much of her community,”” said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “”She truly exemplifies the rare individual who stands up for the First Amendment rights of others at great personal cost. There are many people in her community who would gladly censor and burn books which conflict with their beliefs and values. Deloris’ actions inspire all of us who honor the First Amendment.””

This is the ninth consecutive year that PEN American Center and the Newman’s Own Foundation present the award to a U.S. resident who has fought courageously, despite adversity, to safeguard the First Amendment right to freedom of expression as it applies to the written word.

The cash award will be presented to the recipients, along with limited edition artworks, at PEN’s Annual Gala on April 23, 2001 at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center.

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