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
-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"
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.
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.
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.
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.