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Censorship in public schools

Censorship in Public Schools

-A principal in a California high school bans five books written by Richard

Brautigan because he thinks they might contain "obscenities or offensive sexual

references" (Berger 59).

-A Vermont high school librarian is forced to resign because she fought the

school board's decision to remove Richard Price's The Wanderers, and to

"restrict" the use of Stephen King's Carrie and Patrick Mann's Dog Day Afternoon

(Jones 33).

-An Indiana school board takes action that leads to the burning of many copies

of a textbook that deals with drugs and the sexual behavior of teenagers (Berger


These cases of censorship in public schools are not unusual and there is

evidence that such challenges are increasing (Woods 2). These challenges are

actually typical of the ones being leveled against school libraries today. These

challenges can come from one person or a group concerned with the suitability of

the material in question. In almost every case, the effort to ban books is said

to be "justified by fear of the harmful effects that the books may have on young

children" (Berger 59). The result of these censorship attempts has been two

opposing sides: one side believes that "more suitable materials can usually be

found from among the wealth of materials available on most subjects (Woods 1),

and the other side believes that students' "intellectual freedom" can be upheld

only if students are allowed to examine "any available relevant materials in

order to gain the insights needed to reach their own conclusions" (Woods 1). In

the simplest terms, the debate is between censorship and the freedom to read.

The most important question when discussing censorship deals with its

constitutionality; does censorship violate the First Amendment's guarantee of

free speech? Censorship advocates actually use the words of the First Amendment

to make their point; "the amendment reads, 'Congress shall make no law...", it

does not say, "There shall be no law...'" (Berger 69). They believe that,

although the federal government is forbidden to censor, it is not

unconstitutional for states and local communities to pass censorship laws

(Berger 69). Also, since the US Supreme Court does not believe the First

Amendment protects all forms of expression (child pornography, etc.), then

proponents of censorship believe that censorship laws are constitutional (Berger

69). Anti-censorship has the upper-hand, constitutionally, at least, since

"judges, from local courts to the Supreme Court, seem firmly on the anti-

censorship side" (Berger 61). The courts have time and again ruled that the

Constitution prohibits Congress from censorship of any form.

These two opposing sides have butted heads again and again leaving

behind landmark cases for future legal actions. One of the most famous of those

cases was Pico vs. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District

No. 26, which was the first school library censorship case to reach the Supreme

Court (Jones 35). In March 1976, the Island Trees School Board in New York

removed eleven books that they deemed "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-

Semitic, and just plain filthy" (Berger 59) from the high school library shelves.

Among these books were Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, A Hero Ain't

Nothing but a Sandwich by Alice Childress, and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver

(Jones 37). The board felt that it had "a moral obligation to protect the

children in our schools from this moral danger" (Berger 60). Five students then

sued the school board on grounds that their decision violated their First

Amendment rights. The suit was passed around the courts until June 1982 when the

Supreme Court took up the cause and ruled that the school board would have to

defend its removal of the books. The Supreme Court decided that since the

library is used voluntarily, they can choose books there freely and that, as

Justice Brennan stated, "the First Amendment rights of students may be directly

and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school

library (Jones 45). The Supreme Court's decision was that "courts may act our of

concern for the First Amendment rights of those affected by school officials'

action" (Jones 45). On August 12, 1982, the school board voted to put the books

back on the shelves; (special note: the librarian was told to inform the parents

of students who checked out those books) (Berger 60).

The advocates of school library book censorship believe that adults must

have control over what children read. They feel that unless responsible adults

oversee what students are reading, students will be exposed to the worst in

literature. This literature can go from simply causing offense, to "resulting in

emotional damage and even leading to anti-social behavior" (Berger 61). Their

beliefs lead them to pull the offending books from the shelves so that young

readers are protected, as was the case in Pico and as was the case when "Robin

Hood was considered communistic, Tarzan was living with Jane without benefit of

clergy, and Huckleberry Finn was a racist" (Woods 13). Each time they use words

like controversial, filthy, immoral, lascivious, lewd, obscene, sacrilegious,

and violent, they are actually using only one word, censorship.

The anti-censorship group believes that students have the same

constitutional freedoms as everyone else, including the right to read whatever

they want. They feel that it is only in this way "that children can develop the

taste and understanding to distinguish between trash and serious literature"

(Berger 61).

And it is with this group that I make my stand against censorship. The

purpose of education remains what it has always been in a free society:

to develop a free and reasoning human being who can think for himself,

who understands his own and other cultures, who lives compassionately

and cooperatively with his fellow man, who respects both himself and

others, who has developed self-discipline and self-motivation, who can

laugh at the world, and who can successfully develop survival strategies

for existence in the world.

(Jones 184)

As one who is striving to be an English teacher I know that literature has a

significant part in the education of man. I am aware that I have

responsibilities to my students, for knowing "many books from many cultures",

for "demonstrating a personal commitment to the search for truth through wide

reading", for "respecting the unique qualities and potential of each student"

and for "exhibiting the qualities of the educated man" (Jones 184). With these

responsibilities, I believe that I would not be serving my students to the best

of my abilities if I were not a strong advocate against the censorship of books.

As the NCTE writes, "to deny the freedom of choice in fear that it may be

unwisely used is to destroy the freedom itself" (Jones 181).

As stalwart and idealistic as I am, I still understand that at some

point in my career I will come under attack from a censorship group unhappy with

my selection of curricula. The American School Board Journal gives a list of

nine strategies that can be used to help reduce the chances of an attack; these

include "involving citizens in the book selection process", "giving objecting

parents and students and out", and "don't ban or remove books until they've been

afforded a fair trial" (Woods 35). A similar list by Diane Divoky is a little

more extreme but no less helpful. Her list includes hints like, "if you're going

to use a book with obscenities, check to see if there are approved books in the

school library containing the same words", "before you take on a high-risk

project, try to align yourself with a veteran staff member", and "at the moment

you suspect a problem lies down the line, call the best lawyer within your

reach" (Woods 34).

As for my personal opinion as a citizen and a reader, I have always been

leery of censors. Censors of school library books never announce that it is

their morality that has been damaged. It is always "they" who will be damaged,

it is always someone else's moral fiber that is being protected. In an excerpt

from possibly the most banned book of the modern era, The Catcher in the Rye,

Holden Caufield reacts to an obscenity scrawled on a wall:

It drove me damn near crazy. I though how Phoebe and all the other

little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it

meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them what it meant

and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about if for

a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever'd written it.

(Salinger 165)

This phrase from Salinger's classic novel, for me, illustrates exactly how

censors react when they find anything they deem objectionable in the school. Why

will people react emotionally, even violently, to certain spoken or written

words, while in many cases having mild reactions to the actions described by the

words? While D.H. Lawrence has seen considerable censorship due to his affinity

for sexual content, Shakespeare has enjoyed relative peace even though Othello

and his lover made "the beast with two backs" (I.I, 119-120). I, myself, will

continue to struggle against the censors who seek to control written expression

in our schools while waving the banner of freedom, for it is censorship that we

must fear, not words, and hope that in the future, the true obscenities of the

world (poverty, hunger, war) will be what we shall strive to censor.

Works Cited

Berger, Melvin. Censorship. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

Jones, Frances M. Defusing Censorship: The Librarian's Guide to Handling

Censorship Conflicts. Phoenix: The Oryx Press, 1983.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company,


Woods, L.B. A Decade of Censorship in America: The Threat to Classrooms and

Libraries. London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1979.

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