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Censorship in Public Schools

-A principal in a California high school bans five books written by Richard Brau
tigan
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 scho
ol
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 o
f a
textbook that deals with drugs and the sexual behavior of teenagers (Berger 61).
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 typ
ical 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 harm
ful effects
that the books may have on young children" (Berger 59). The result of these cens
orship
attempts has been two opposing sides: one side believes that "more suitable mate
rials 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 uph
eld only if
students are allowed to examine "any available relevant materials in order to ga
in 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 fr
ee
speech? Censorship advocates actually use the words of the First Amendment to ma
ke
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 loc
al
communities to pass censorship laws (Berger 69). Also, since the US Supreme Cour
t
does not believe the First Amendment protects all forms of expression (child
pornography, etc.), then proponents of censorship believe that censorship laws a
re
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-c
ensorship
side" (Berger 61). The courts have time and again ruled that the Constitution pr

ohibits
Congress from censorship of any form.
These two opposing sides have butted heads again and again leaving behin
d
landmark cases for future legal actions. One of the most famous of those cases w
as Pico
vs. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, which wa
s 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" (Ber
ger 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 t
o protect
the children in our schools from this moral danger" (Berger 60). Five students t
hen sued
the school board on grounds that their decision violated their First Amendment r
ights.
The suit was passed around the courts until June 1982 when the Supreme Court too
k up
the cause and ruled that the school board would have to defend its removal of th
e books.
The Supreme Court decided that since the library is used voluntarily, they can c
hoose
books there freely and that, as Justice Brennan stated, "the First Amendment rig
hts 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 ma
y 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 overse
e 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 l
eading
to anti-social behavior" (Berger 61). Their beliefs lead them to pull the offend
ing books
from the shelves so that young readers are protected, as was the case in Pico an
d as was
the case when "Robin Hood was considered communistic, Tarzan was living with Jan
e
without benefit of clergy, and Huckleberry Finn was a racist" (Woods 13). Each t
ime they
use words like controversial, filthy, immoral, lascivious, lewd, obscene, sacril
egious, and

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


The anti-censorship group believes that students have the same constitut
ional
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 p
urpose 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, w
ho
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 th
e world.
(Jones 1
84)
As one who is striving to be an English teacher I know that literature has a sig
nificant
part in the education of man. I am aware that I have responsibilities to my stud
ents, for
knowing "many books from many cultures", for "demonstrating a personal commitmen
t
to the search for truth through wide reading", for "respecting the unique qualit
ies 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 stud
ents to the
best of my abilities if I were not a strong advocate against the censorship of b
ooks. 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 poin
t in my
career I will come under attack from a censorship group unhappy with my selectio
n of
curricula. The American School Board Journal gives a list of nine strategies tha
t 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 lis
t by Diane
Divoky is a little more extreme but no less helpful. Her list includes hints lik
e, "if you're
going to use a book with obscenities, check to see if there are approved books i
n the
school library containing the same words", "before you take on a high-risk proje
ct, try to
align yourself with a veteran staff member", and "at the moment you suspect a pr
oblem
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 moralit
y 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 s
crawled
on a wall:
It drove me damn near crazy. I though how Phoebe and all the other littl
e kids
would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then fin
ally some
dirty kid would tell them what it meant and how they'd all think about i
t and
maybe even worry about if for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill w
hoever'd
written it. (Salinger 165)
This phrase from Salinger's classic novel, for me, illustrates exactly how censo
rs react
when they find anything they deem objectionable in the school. Why will people r
eact
emotionally, even violently, to certain spoken or written words, while in many c
ases
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 tw
o
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, fo
r it is
censorship that we must fear, not words, and hope that in the future, the true o
bscenities
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 Censor
ship
Conflicts. Phoenix: The Oryx Press, 1983.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 19
45.
Woods, L.B. A Decade of Censorship in America: The Threat to Classrooms and
Libraries. London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1979.