OHA proposal is censorship

By: Trustee Rowena Akana

Source: Letters to the Editor, The Honolulu Advertiser, Posted on: Friday, May 6, 2005

As anyone who has consistently read my monthly OHA newsletter columns knows, I never shy away from telling beneficiaries the truth about what is going on at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. However, that may soon come to an end.

On March 15, the Assets & Resource Management Committee held a workshop to review proposed changes to OHA’s board of trustees policy manual. Most of the proposed changes were not earth-shattering, except for the following proposed language that was added to the Ka Wai Ola editorial policy: “No libelous or defamatory material will be published. Questions on libel and/or defamation will be resolved in consultation with the editor of the Ka Wai Ola, the public information officer, and OHA’s in-house counsel.”

If this policy passes, our newsletter might not just get one but two new censors — not to mention a slap-in-the-face to free speech.

OHA currently has a policy in place that ensures all articles are written responsibly and meet the standards of good taste. Trustees have never needed a censor since we are all personally liable for our comments. Each of us can be sued individually for any slanderous or libelous remarks. Any of us could be taken to court if we were to write something that wasn’t true.

To my knowledge, no trustee has ever been sued for public comments in our newsletter.

Giving two members of OHA’s administrative staff the power to censor trustees will, for all intents and purposes, give that power to the chair. First of all, the chair of the board has enormous power and influence over all staff, not to mention their boss, the administrator. The chair could easily make their work life miserable if they dared defiance. I know of several staff members who have already left because they fell into disfavor.

It is simple for any chair to control the flow of information to trustees once he or she has had enough time to place his or her “people” into important OHA staff positions. If and when a dissenting trustee receives any information requested, it is only months later and with the crucial information missing. This amounts to an ongoing “silent censorship” within OHA. Therefore, there is really no need for an additional policy to make sure that only glowing accomplishments appear in our newsletter.

The trustees’ monthly columns are one of the few remaining opportunities we have to communicate honestly with our beneficiaries. If this policy passes, dissent will be silenced, and all you will ever hear is how wonderful things are going. OHA’s newsletter will simply be reduced to a propaganda rag.

Freedom of communication is crucial for a healthy democracy. Instead of putting up barriers, we should be tearing them down. It is impossible for all people at all times to agree on the value of all ideas. However, how can we grow as an organization if there is no room for dissent?

Restricting what our beneficiaries can or cannot read is simply unacceptable. It amounts to a dictatorship and will only lead to political and intellectual repression. It will force our people to consider only a narrow view.

Censorship is an assault on the rights of all of us. We must fight with all our strength for the freedom to read, to see, to know and to think for ourselves.