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Taking the freedom out of ‘Freedom Writers’

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Anyone who says that Hollywood filmmakers are dilettantes who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk haven’t met Richard LaGravenese. The Oscar-nominated screenwriter (‘The Horse Whisperer’ and ‘Bridges of Madison County’) and director (‘Living Out Loud’) made a riveting film last year, ‘Freedom Writers,’ that starred Hilary Swank as a maverick high school teacher who gave inner-city kids a chance to tell their stories and show how the classroom could be a place that mattered in their lives. The story was inspired by Erin Gruwell’s ‘The Freedom Writers Diary,’ which chronicled the real-life struggles of her Long Beach, California, schoolkids.

The days when movies were banned by local zealots are over. But a high school teacher in Perry, Indiana, has been suspended without pay by her local school board for allowing her students to read ‘The Freedom Writers Diary,’ despite the fact that she had overwhelming parental approval to use the book as a teaching tool. The school board has disciplined the local teacher, Connie Heermann, because the book contains occasional swear words and because Heermann disobeyed a direct order against using the book in her class.

But what does this have to do with Richard LaGravenese and Hilary Swank, you ask?

LaGravenese isn’t just a gifted screenwriter. It turns out that he’s an ardent polemicist too. When he heard about Heermann’s dismissal, thanks to a CNN report, he sat down and wrote a spirited defense of academic freedom for the Huffington Post, which is a must read for anyone who cares about the sad state of education and academic freedom in today’s society. One highlight:

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‘Through the creative act of writing these journals, [Erin Gruwell’s students] learned about tolerance and service, they learned that hope was available to them and they learned how to learn. Which is exactly why Connie Heermann gave her students the book. In the CNN report, the Perry Township representatives cite the bad language of the book.... When CNN reporter Gary Tuchman remarks to School Board president Barbara Thompson how he couldn’t believe that the students would be worse off by reading the book, Thompson responded: ‘What worries me is that Connie Heermann sent a poor message to our children. If you’re told no, do it.’ ... What message is Ms. Thompson sending? Don’t stand for what you believe to be right when faced with limited thinking, or worse, ignorance? Just say yes to censorship?’

LaGravenese is now trying to do more than just get the word out about this teacher’s plight. With the help of Swank and ‘Freedom Writers’ producers Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg, LaGravenese has organized a campaign to hire a crack legal team to defend Heermann, raise money to pay her bills during her suspension and support efforts to ensure that the book can continue to be taught in school systems across the country. LaGravenese points out at the end of his piece that ‘Freedom Writers’ has been taught in schools and youth centers all over the world, from Holland to Brazil to Indonesia. As he says: ‘How may times, over how many centuries, do Americans like Connie Heermann have to fight for freedom of expression and thought in their own country?’

Hilary Swank photo from Paramount Pictures


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