- Censorship and the First Amendment in Schools: A Resource Guide
- Censorship Policies
- National Education Association (NEA)
- The National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (NCTE/IRA)
- Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)
- American Library Association (ALA)
- National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)
- National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC)
- Avoiding Censorship in Schools
- The First Amendment in Schools: Censorship
- Position Statements
- Why a great education means engaging with controversy
- Banned Books Lessons: Teaching about Censorship in High School
- WAYS TO INCORPORATE LESSONS ON BANNED BOOKS
- TIPS FOR TREADING LIGHTLY WITH CENSORSHIP
- RELATED RESOURCE:
- Against Censorship in Public Schools
- Censored and Banned Books By The Numbers
- Why and What Parents Deem Acceptable Book Censorship
- But What Does It Mean?
- Can a public school official legally censor a school-sponsored publication, like a newspaper or yearbook?
- High school journalists stand up to censorship and win
- The Role of Censorship in School
Censorship and the First Amendment in Schools: A Resource Guide
Similarly, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) policy on textbook selection emphasizes that its “first commitment” is “preservation of the student’s right to learn in an atmosphere of academic freedom,” and that “election of materials will be made by professional personnel through reading, listening, viewing, careful examination, the use of reputable, unbiased, professionally prepared selection aids.” The NCTE and the International Reading Association advise selecting curricular materials that 1) have a clear connection to established educational objectives; and 2) address the needs of the students for whom they are intended.
Significantly, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) cautions that “”judgment must not be completely subservient to the popular will. Educators’ primary allegiance must be to the integrity of knowledge and the welfare of students … materials must never be removed or restricted for the purpose of suppressing ideas.”
Policies governing school libraries and classroom resource materials reflect the priority placed on inclusion of a wider range of materials, because of libraries’ traditional role to offer choices for all readers. The ALA Library Bill of Rights, first adopted in 1948, recognizes the library’s essential role in providing resources to serve the “interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community.” With minor modifications, these principles also apply in the school setting.
The considerations specifically relevant to school libraries are identified by NSBA guidelines:
- To provide materials that will enrich and support the school’s curricula…
- To provide materials that will stimulate knowledge, growth, literary appreciation, aesthetic values, ethical standards and leisure-time reading;
- To provide information to help students make intelligent judgments;
- To provide information on opposing sides of controversial issues so that students may develop the practice of critical reading and thinking; and
- To provide materials representative of the many religious, ethnic, and cultural groups that have contributed to the American heritage.
As is true with curricular materials, the ALA cautions that library materials “should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
C. Complaint Procedures
Many school districts adopt formal policies and procedures for responding to complaints about materials—and for good reason. They clarify how complaint processes work; help faculty, staff, and administration fulfill their legal obligations; let parents and students know what criteria are used for removing materials and how they are applied; provide opportunities to understand more about community perspectives and values; and protect teachers’ academic freedom.
When materials are challenged, schools with well-articulated processes for handling complaints and reviews are more likely to resist censorship pressures than districts that lack such guidelines. Having policies in place and following them scrupulously ensures that complainants will receive due process, and that challenged materials will be judged on their educational merits rather than personal opinion. It is important for teachers and administrators to be familiar with these policies and understand their significant function. Armed with knowledge of these policies, schools officials are less likely to submit to pressure or react with unilateral decisions to remove books.
Different school systems implement complaint procedures in different ways, but most provide that:
- Complaints must be made in writing;
- Complainants should identify themselves both by name/address and their interest in the material (i.e., as a parent, student, religious leader, etc.);
- Complainants must have read/seen the entire work objected to;
- The complaint must be specific about the reasons for the objection;
- Complaints should request a specific remedy (i.e., an alternative assignment for an individual, or removal/exclusion affecting the entire school community); and
- Complaints, standing alone, will not be considered grounds for disciplining teachers or librarians.
It is advisable for policies to contain a statement supporting intellectual and academic freedom, and an explanation of the importance of exposing students to a wide variety of material and information, some of which may be considered “controversial.” Policies should also clearly indicate that certain kinds of objections do not provide legally permissible grounds for removal, exclusion or restriction. Disagreement with a specific idea or message—and personal objections to materials on religious, political or social grounds—are the most common grounds for challenges and the most suspect. Such concerns may justify a parent’s request that his or her child be assigned alternate material, and if shared more widely they may suggest the need for discussion about how teachers and school officials can better explain the material’s educational value, and ways in which any perceived harms can be alleviated, perhaps through inclusion of additional materials. But such personal viewpoint-based concerns, standing alone, rarely justify removal of material, and may raise First Amendment issues.
A committee—often composed of instructional staff, library staff, and administrators, and sometimes including students and parents—ordinarily processes complaints. Their recommendation is usually subject to a review process, but such a committee’s professional judgment is entitled to deference if grounded in sound educational and pedagogical principles. Its decision should only be reversed for compelling educational reasons. Materials should never be removed unless the complaint procedures are followed, and materials should never be removed prior to completion of the complaint process.
These principles, if uniformly and consistently implemented, protect students whose right to learn should not be limited by some other individual’s or family’s preferences. They also protect educators in their exercise of professional judgment, and help insulate them and the school district from legal challenges and community pressure.
- School administrators and teachers should work together to develop an understanding about how they will respond if material is challenged, recognizing that it is impossible to predict what may be challenged.
- Educators should always have a rationale for the materials employed—regardless of whether they think something is potentially “controversial.”
- In approaching material that may be controversial, keep parents advised about what material students are using and why it has been selected.
- Encourage parents to raise questions about curricular materials directly with their child’s teacher, and encourage teachers to be willing and available to discuss concerns with parents.
- Schedule regular meetings for parents. In one innovative program in South Carolina called Communicate through Literature, librarian Pat Scales invited parents to the library once a month, without students, to discuss contemporary young adult books that their children might be reading, to understand how the books helped their children grow intellectually and emotionally, and to encourage parents to discuss books with their children. She never had a censorship case, but had many calls from parents asking her to recommend books for their children to address troublesome issues (Pat Scales’ book, Teaching Banned Books (American Library Ass’n, 2001) describes this program in detail.).
- Involve members of the community in any debate over challenged materials. Broadening the discussion usually reveals that only a small number of people object to the same material or on the same ground, but that if one person’s preferences are taken into account, others will expect the same treatment—making almost everything vulnerable to challenge.
- Support the value of intellectual and academic freedom. Conscientious teachers who are unlucky enough to get caught in the middle of a censorship dispute—and it could happen to anyone—deserve support from their colleagues and the community if their choices are educationally justifiable. Without such trust and some latitude, teachers will stick only to the tried and true, or the bland and unobjectionable.
Major Educational Organizations Take a Stand for the First Amendment
Many national and international organizations concerned with elementary and secondary education have established guidelines on censorship issues. While each organization addresses censorship a little differently, each is committed to free speech and recognizes the dangers and hardships imposed by censorship. The organizations couple their concern for free speech with a concern for balancing the rights of students, teachers and parents. Many place heavy emphasis on the importance of establishing policies for selecting classroom materials and procedures for addressing complaints. The following summarizes the censorship and material selection policies adopted by leading educational organizations.
National Education Association (NEA)
The NEA is America’s oldest and largest organization committed to advancing the cause of public education. Its 2.5 million members work at every level of education. Elected representatives from across the country are responsible for setting policy, which includes resolutions on selecting and developing education materials and teaching techniques. The resolutions embody NEA’s belief that democratic values are best transmitted free from censorship and deplore “pre-publishing censorship, book burning crusades, and attempts to ban books from the … curriculum.” The NEA encourages its members to be involved in developing textbooks and materials and to seek the removal of laws and regulations that restrict selection of diverse materials.
The National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (NCTE/IRA)
A 80,000-member organization devoted to improving the teaching and learning of English and the language arts, the NCTE offers support, advice and resources to teachers and schools faced with challenges to teaching materials or methods. The NCTE has developed a Statement on Censorship and Professional Guidelines recognizing that English and language arts teachers face daily decisions about teaching materials and methods.
The IRA has 90,000 members worldwide, working in a variety of educational capacities. Its goal is to promote high levels of literacy by improving the quality of reading instruction and encouraging reading as a lifetime habit. The IRA supports “freedom of speech, thought and inquiry as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
The NCTE and IRA have issued a joint statement on intellectual freedom: “all students in public school classrooms have the right to materials and educational experiences that promote open inquiry, critical thinking, diversity in thought and expression, and respect for others.”
Their mutual policy sets out four principles aimed at translating the ideals of the First Amendment into classroom reality: (1) to actively support intellectual freedom; (2) to foster democratic values, critical thinking and open inquiry; (3) to prepare for challenges with clearly defined procedures; and (4) to ensure educational communities are free to select and review classroom curricula to meet student needs.
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)
The ASCD is an international organization of professional educators committed to excellence in education. Its mission is to “forge covenants in teaching and learning for the success of all learners.” The ASCD recognizes the importance of balancing the rights and needs of students, teachers and parents with freedom of expression:
“When challenges arise, school officials should bear in mind that education is governed by the public. … should recognize the value of citizen participation and respect the right of parents to shape their children’s schooling. At the same time, educators should insist that, as in other fields, professional judgment must not be completely subservient to the popular will. Educators’ primary allegiance must be to the integrity of knowledge and the welfare of students.”
The ASCD stresses the importance of establishing complaint procedures and affirms that materials are never to be restricted for the purpose of suppressing ideas.
American Library Association (ALA)
The ALA, “the voice of America’s libraries,” is dedicated to providing leadership for the “development, promotion and improvement of library and information services…in order to enhance learning and access to information for all.” The ALA has a widely emulated Bill of Rights affirming all libraries as forums for information and ideas. The ALA’s policies stipulate that libraries should provide materials from all points of view; challenge censorship; cooperate with free speech groups; grant access to all regardless of origin, age, background or views; and provide exhibit space on an equitable basis. Drawing on the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights, the ALA emphasizes the importance of free speech: “We know that censorship, ignorance, and limitations on the free flow of information are the tools of tyranny and oppression. We believe that ideas and information topple the walls of hate and fear and build bridges of cooperation and understanding far more effectively than weapons and armies.”
National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)
Dedicated to assuring that every American boy and girl receives the world’s best elementary and middle school education, NAESP sets policy on curriculum and instruction. In its statement on censorship and academic freedom, “NAESP affirms the right of the student and teacher to use a wide variety of curriculum and literary materials and to explore divergent points of view.” NAESP also emphasizes the importance of establishing procedures to address selection of materials and challenges to selections. These procedures are to be carried out “professionally and equitably,” according to established professional criteria and the values and needs of the community.
National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC)
Founded in 1974, NCAC is an alliance of over 50 national non-profit organizations–including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties group—united in their support of freedom of thought, inquiry and expression. NCAC works with teachers, educators, writers, artists and others around the country dealing with censorship debates in their own communities; it educates its members and the public at large about the dangers of censorship and how to oppose them; and it advances policies that promote and protect freedom of expression and democratic values.
Avoiding Censorship in Schools
Efforts to remove books and other materials from the classroom, curriculum and school library represent one of the most significant forms of censorship in the United States. Classics of Western literature like Lysistrata and The Miller’s Tale, the Harry Potter series, celebrations of Earth Day, studies of world religion, discussions of feminism and more have all been challenged. Sometimes these efforts are initiated by a parent or other member of a community; sometimes organizations campaign to change educational norms and practices to reflect their particular views and perspectives. They may circulate a list of “objectionable” books, stimulating challenges in communities around the country.
Local school boards generally have the authority to prescribe the curriculum, within state-approved guidelines. Two Supreme Court cases, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) and Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) grant administrators considerable discretion in deciding what is educationally suitable. For example, lower courts upheld action against one teacher for permitting violations of school policy against profanity in teaching creative writing (Lacks v. Ferguson Reorganized School District (8th Cir. 1998) and against another for staging a dramatic production with controversial content (Boring v. Buncombe County Board of Education (4th Cir. 1998). However, courts defer to administrators and educators equally when their decisions promote, rather than suppress, speech—as when schools administrators elect to include controversial materials in the curriculum (Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School 9th Cir. 1998).
The outcome of censorship cases often depends on the factual context, how competing interests are balanced, and in some cases motive. As a result, decisions vary widely, and the same action can be upheld in one district and struck down in the next. This can be confusing, but a few rules of thumb are available:
A. Policies and practices designed to respect free expression and encourage discourse and discussion are rarely, if ever, disturbed by courts
They may be challenged by students or parents who are offended by certain books or other materials with racial or ethnic content (e.g., Monteiro v. Tempe Union School District (9th Cir. 1999), or with content that offends religious beliefs (e.g., Altman v. Bedford Central School District (2d Cir. 2001). However, it is rare that a court will order educators to remove materials that have legitimate educational purposes, even if they cause offense to some. Many schools will offer students alternative assignments in such cases.
B. The decision to remove material is more vulnerable, and often places motivation for the removal at issue since actions motivated by hostility to particular ideas or speakers is not permitted
E.g., Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board (5th Cir. 1995). As the Supreme Court has observed: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson, 109 S. Ct. 2533 (1989).
C. The deference frequently shown school administrators with regard to the curriculum is not always accorded when a dispute arises over material in the school library
Under a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, school administrators may regulate library content based on “educational suitability,” but may not do so to suppress ideas or instill political orthodoxy (Board of Education v. Pico). Noting the importance of “the regime of voluntary inquiry” that characterizes the library setting, as distinct from the “compulsory environment of the classroom,” the Court has affirmed students’ right of access to a broad range of information “to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding.” Observing this distinction, lower courts tend to inquire more searchingly into decisions to remove library materials, and to order materials restored when there is proof of an impermissible motive (Case v. Unified School District (D. Kans. 1995); Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board (5th Cir. 1995).
Useful information is available from the American Library Association, including the Library Bill of Rights, Tips for Library Directors, and Tips for Young Adult Librarians:
- Make sure the library has an up-to-date selection policy, reviewed regularly by your library board, which includes a request for reconsideration form.
- Have the request for reconsideration form available at your major service desk.
- Work with your trustees (school board representatives) to ensure that they know and understand the library’s policies.
- Model the behavior you want staff to practice. When confronted by a parent or other individual who wants an item removed or reclassified, listen carefully to what is being said (and what is not). Respect that person’s right to have an opinion, and empathize. Keep the lines of communication open to the greatest possible extent.
- Work with your frontline staff (reference librarians, circulation, support staff, etc.) to make sure they understand the library’s policies.
- Build a good working relationship with your local media before controversy arises. Provide them with positive, upbeat stories about what the library is doing.
- Put key contacts on the library’s mailing list. The time to build these relationships is before you need them.
Once a school district accedes to a demand to censor, it can become increasingly difficult to resist such pressures. Once one perspective is accommodated, those with a different view come to expect similar treatment. Listening to community concerns and taking them into account in structuring the educational environment is not the same as removing material because someone does not agree with its contents. School officials always have the legal authority to refuse to censor something. They may need to do more to help members of their community understand why it is the right choice for children’s education.
The First Amendment in Schools: Censorship
Introduction | The First Amendment and Public Schools | Censorship | Student Protest Rights | How Big a Problem is Censorship? | Roles and Responsibilities | Censorship Policies | Resource Guide
A. Understanding Censorship: Censorship is not easy to define. According to Webster’s Dictionary, to “censor” means “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.” Its central characteristic is the suppression of an idea or image because it offends or disturbs someone, or because they disagree with it. In many countries, censorship is most often directed at political ideas or criticism of the government. In the United States, censorship more often involves social issues, and in school is commonly directed at so-called “controversial” materials.
Advocates for censorship often target materials that discuss sexuality, religion, race and ethnicity–whether directly or indirectly. For example, some people object to the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in science classes because it conflicts with their own religious views. Others think schools are wrong to allow discussion about sexual orientation in sex education or family life classes, and others would eliminate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the English curriculum because of racial references.
Most pressures for censorship come from parents who disapprove of language or ideas that differ from or affront their personal views and values, but demands can emerge from anywhere across the religious, ideological, and political spectrum. The range of “controversial” topics appears to be limitless: religion, science, history, contemporary and classical literature, art, gender, sexuality, “one-worldism,” health, multiculturalism, and on and on. Many demands appear motivated by anxiety about changing social conditions and traditions. Feminism, removal of prayer from schools, the emergence of the gay rights movement, and other trends with implications for family structure and personal values, have all generated calls for censorship.
Censorship demands require educators to balance First Amendment obligations and principles against other concerns – such as maintaining the integrity of the educational program, meeting state education requirements, respecting the judgments of professional staff, and addressing deeply held beliefs in students and members of the community. Challenging as these circumstances may be, educators are on the strongest ground if they are mindful of two fundamental principles derived from the Supreme Court’s First Amendment decisions: 1) educators enjoy wide latitude in exercising their professional judgment and fulfilling their educational mission if their decisions are based on sound educational and pedagogical principles and serve to enhance the ability of students to learn; and 2) the decisions that are most vulnerable to legal challenge are those that are motivated by hostility to an unpopular, controversial, or disfavored idea, or by the desire to conform to a particular ideological, political or religious viewpoint.
Pursuant to these principles, lower courts generally defer to the professional judgments of educators. As discussed in Fact Sheet #8, this sometimes means that the courts will uphold a decision to remove a book or to discipline a teacher, if it appears to serve legitimate educational objectives, including administrative efficiency. However, administrators and educators who reject demands for censorship are on equally strong or stronger grounds. Most professional educational organizations strongly promote free expression and academic freedom as necessary to the educational process. Access to a wide range of views and the opportunity to discuss and dissent are all essential to education and serve the schools’ legitimate goals to prepare students with different needs and beliefs for adulthood and participation in the democratic process.
It is highly improbable that a school official who relied on these principles and refused to accede to pressures to censor something with educational value would ever be ordered by a court of law to do so.
There are practical and educational as well as legal reasons to adhere as closely as possible to the ideals of the First Amendment. School districts such as Panama City, Florida and Hawkins County, Tennessee have been stunned to find that acceding to demands for removal of a single book escalated to demands for revising entire classroom reading programs. The school district in Island Trees, New York encountered objections to 11 books in its library and curriculum, including Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Black Boy, by Richard Wright, and The Fixer by Bernard Malamud. Other jurisdictions have been pressed to revise the science curriculum, the content of history courses, sex education, drug and alcohol education, and self-esteem programs. Experience has shown far too many times that what appears to be capitulation to a minor adjustment can turn into the opening foray of a major curriculum content battle involving warring factions of parents and politicians, teachers, students and administrators.
B. Distinguishing Censorship from Selection: Teachers, principals, and school administrators make decisions all the time about which books and materials to retain, add or exclude from the curriculum. They are not committing an act of censorship every time they cross a book off a reading list, but if they decide to remove a book because of hostility to the ideas it contains, they could be. As the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and International Reading Association (IRA) note, there is an important distinction between selection based on professional guidelines and censorship: “Whereas the goal of censorship is to remove, eliminate or bar particular materials and methods, the goal of professional guidelines is to provide criteria for selection of materials and methods.”
For example, administrators and faculty might agree to take discussion of evolution out of the second grade curriculum because the students lack sufficient background to understand it, and decide to introduce it in the fourth grade instead. As long as they were not motivated by hostility to the idea of teaching about evolution, this would not ordinarily be deemed censorship. The choice to include the material in the fourth grade curriculum tends to demonstrate this was a pedagogical judgment, not an act of censorship.
Not every situation is that simple. For example, objections to material dealing with sexuality or sexual orientation commonly surface in elementary schools and middle schools when individuals –often parents or religious leaders – demand the material’s removal with the claim that it is not “age appropriate” for those students. On closer examination, it is clear their concern is not that students will not understand the material, but that the objecting adults do not want the students to have access to this type of information at this age. If professional educators can articulate a legitimate pedagogical rationale to maintain such material in the curriculum, it is unlikely that an effort to remove it would be successful.
Of course, hardly anyone admits to “censoring” something. Most people do not consider it censorship when they attempt to rid the school of material that they think is profane or immoral, or when they insist that the materials selected show respect for religion, morality, or parental authority. While parents have considerable rights to direct their own child’s education (see Fact Sheet #9), they have no right to impose their judgments and preferences on other students and their families. School officials who accede to demands to remove materials because of objections to their views or content may be engaging in censorship. Even books or materials that many find “objectionable” may have educational value, and the decision about what to use in the classroom should be based on professional judgments and standards, not individual preferences. Efforts to suppress a disfavored view or controversial ideas are educationally unsound and constitutionally suspect.
The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.–– Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. at 535 (1925).
C. Consequences of Censorship: What’s so bad about getting rid of materials containing profanity? Many people don’t want their children using that kind of language even if they do it themselves, and many parents believe that seeing profanity in books or hearing others swear encourages youngsters to do the same, especially if the act goes unpunished. Yet profanity appears in many worthwhile books, films and other materials for the same reasons many people use it in their everyday language–for emphasis or to convey emotion. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet says to the players, the purpose of drama is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”
Works containing profanity often contain realistic portrayals of how an individual might respond in a situation, and some teachers intentionally select such materials to remove the allure from cursing. But even minor use of profanity has not shielded books from attack. Katherine Paterson’s award-winning book Bridge to Terabithia contains only mild profanity, but it has been repeatedly challenged on that ground, as have long-acknowledged classics like Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. Profanity, however, is only one of many grounds on which books are challenged. Almost every classic piece of literature — including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — has been for some reason, in some place, at some time.
As these examples illustrate, censorship based on individual sensitivities and concerns restricts the world of knowledge available to students. And that world could get smaller and smaller. Based on personal views, some parents wish to eliminate material depicting violence, others object to references to sexuality, others to racially-laden speech or images. Some parents oppose having their children exposed to fiction that doesn’t have a happy ending, teach a moral lesson, or provide noble role models. If these and other individual preferences were legitimate criteria for censoring materials used in school, the curriculum would narrow to including only the least controversial and probably least relevant material. It would hardly address students’ real concerns, satisfy their curiosity, or prepare them for life.
Censorship also harms teachers. By limiting resources and flexibility, censorship hampers a teacher’s ability to explore all possible avenues to motivate and “reach” students. By curtailing ideas that can be discussed in class, censorship takes creativity and vitality out of the art of teaching. Instruction is reduced to bland, formulaic, pre-approved exercises carried out in an environment that discourages the give-and-take that can spark a student’s enthusiasm for learning. To maintain the spontaneous give and take of the classroom setting, teachers need latitude to respond to unanticipated questions and discussion, and the freedom to draw on their professional judgment and expertise, without fear of consequences if someone objects, disagrees, or takes offense.
When we strip teachers of their professional judgment, we forfeit the educational vitality we prize. When we quell controversy for the sake of congeniality, we deprive democracy of its mentors.–– Gregory Hobbs, Jr (dissenting in Board of Education of Jefferson County School District R-1 v. Alfred Wilder)
Censorship chills creativity and in that way impacts everyone. In a volume entitled Places I Never Meant To Be, author Judy Blume, whose books are a common target of censorship efforts, has collected statements of censored writers about the harms of censorship.
According to one frequently censored author, Katherine Paterson:
When our chief goal is not to offend someone, we are not likely to write a book that will deeply affect anyone.
Julius Lester observed:
Censorship is an attitude of mistrust and suspicion that seeks to deprive the human experience of mystery and complexity. But without mystery and complexity, there is no wonder; there is no awe; there is no laughter.
Norma Fox Mazur added:
…where once I went to my writing without a backward glance, now I sometimes have to consciously clear my mind of those shadowy censorious presences. That’s bad for me as a writer, bad for you as a reader. Censorship is crippling, negating, stifling.. It should be unthinkable in a country like ours. Readers deserve to pick their own books. Writers need the freedom of their minds. That’s all we writers have, anyway: our minds and imaginations. To allow the censors even the tiniest space in there with us can only lead to dullness, imitation, and mediocrity.
Censorship represents a tyranny over the mind, said Thomas Jefferson–a view shared by founders of our nation–and is harmful wherever it occurs. Censorship is particularly harmful in the schools because it prevents youngsters with inquiring minds from exploring the world, seeking truth and reason, stretching their intellectual capacities, and becoming critical thinkers. When the classroom environment is chilled, honest exchange of views is replaced by guarded discourse and teachers lose the ability to reach and guide their students effectively.
In general, Miss Udow says, many censorship groups want to eliminate books dealing with civil rights and liberties, women’s rights and the evils of slavery. Other censorship groups would take ”The Merchant of Venice” off the shelves, or ban books they consider unfair to minority groups.
Some large states, such as Texas, have had a considerable impact on the content of textbooks because loss of their market would seriously reduce publishers’ profits. This is aggravated by the fact that Texas centrally approves all books used in the state’s public schools. Publishers therefore often quietly purge books of references that might risk the ire of local censorship groups. For example, according to Miss Udow, references to evolution in some social studies texts have been reduced by anywhere from 30 percent to 80 percent because of pressure from groups opposed to Darwin’s theories.
To make it easier for English teachers to defend the use of books that frequently come under attack, the fall 1983 issue of The Connecticut English Journal has published a list of 25 books along with detailed ”rationales,” written by experienced English teachers. These comments explain why these books are essential to effective English teaching. The issue, writes Mrs. Shugert in an introduction, ”is dedicated to the countless teachers and librarians who have been courageous enough – and professional enough – to resist the censors. (It is available for $5.75 from the Connecticut Council of Teachers of English, P.O. Box 2211, Enfield, Conn. 06082.)
For example, Winifred E. Sanders, who has taught English in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, writing on ”To Kill a Mockingbird,” says, ”The main objections to the book seem to come from those who question the wisdom of the civil rights movement and disapprove of having Negroes presented in a favorable light.”
Students, the ”rationale” concludes, ”need to read this book, a kind of social history, to help them understand, through the eyes of one family, at one time, in one town in the United States, some of the problems of justice.”
Of ”The Grapes of Wrath,” Paul Cervoni, chairman of the English department at Trumbull High School in Connecticut, says, ”It forcefully presents the issues of a time in our history we must not forget” and it stimulates students to think about what is right and wrong. Moreover, the book teaches students certain historic parallels. For example, he points out, on Aug. 19, 1983, The New York Times reported growing unrest over conditions on West Coast farms.
It is, of course, because good books often make students think about society’s unsolved problems that many right-wing censors object. At the same time, left-wing censors object to books that give young people too favorable a view of America as a free society. In either case, the effect of censorship is to deprive students of a realistic view of the world and of an opportunity to pursue and test ideas of how to improve that world. Censors think that by putting blinders on young people, they can make them do their bidding, without asking uncomfortable questions.
Incidents of school censorship and litigation are increasing, writes Rick Petosa of the University of South Carolina. He believes that censorship controversies threaten our students’ freedom to learn, our relationship with our communities, our professional integrity and the quality of the education we provide.
Petosa defines educational censorship as the “intentional use of power to restrict students’ exposure to ideas, to protect preferred beliefs or eliminate undesired beliefs.” Efforts to censor or control what is taught in our classrooms can come from a number of directions.
Censorship from many different directions
Surveys indicate the largest group of potential censors have been political or religious ‘conservatives’. However, ‘liberals’, minority organizations and feminist groups have also attempted to influence curriculum to make it adhere more closely to their beliefs. Teachers pressured by special interest groups learn to avoid confrontation by not teaching anything controversial. The effects of this kind of pressure are found in textbook publishing as well. Petosa believes this leads to educational mediocrity.
Teachers themselves have become involved in issues of academic freedom, albeit inadvertently, by being insensitive to community interests and complacent about their own version of the truth. By failing to teach objectively and by failing to discuss dissimilar perspectives which might lead students to form knowledgeable personal opinions, teachers can impose a form of censorship which discourages free intellectual inquiry.
There is no precise legal definition for censorship but obscene or defamatory materials can be restricted despite the fundamental right to freedom of thought, belief and speech which is protected by The First Amendment.
Teachers and administrators must understand the difference between informed choice and censorship when dealing with communities and special interest groups and be able to defend the choices they make concerning educational materials and curriculum. Petosa interprets informed choice as being able to separate “scientific fact from political issues and religious truths…” Students need to learn to do this as well, and they develop this ability by being exposed to a wide range of information and by practicing critical thinking and discussion skills.
While people have the right to influence the educational institutions that they support and to which they send their children, educators have the responsibility to protect intellectual freedom.
Typically, a situation in which censorship threatens occurs when an individual or group has strong negative feelings about something being taught in the school. Potential censors seek to gather evidence and involve local politicians and the media in their cause. In the past, this has led to the polarization of a community, to emotional statements and to a simplistic view of the problem. This, in turn, can lead to litigation as well as to long-term damage to the school and to the school’s relationship with the community.
Educators need to take an active role in involving the community in curriculum development in order to avoid censorship situations. Petosa recommends the establishment of “committees on intellectual freedom”. He warns that teachers must not simply let the community tell them what to teach. Rather, the purpose of the committee, which is made up of parents, teachers, administrators and school board members, is to develop a policy by which educational materials are selected.
Local citizens represent divergent viewpoints and educators need to be able to defend the importance of the educational material they use in terms of its benefits for the intellectual development of their students. Intellectual freedom can be protected if we bear in mind the rights of parents, students and teachers. Petosa believes that “educational censorship can be prevented if the rights of these three factions are protected when making curricular decisions.”
Listening to objections
Individuals concerned about something being taught in a class should be encouraged to talk with the teacher, who should be able to explain the procedures folowed in the selection of the material and its role in the curriculum. The individual, if unsatisfied, should be referred to the committee. The committee, as a coalition of community and school interests, should function to arbitrate differences in an objective manner.
Students have the right to a broad range of information, just as educators have the responsibility to use their professional judgment in choosing educational materials. Parents and community beliefs must, however, be carefully considered. Petosa recommends that particular efforts be made to educate school board members in these matters.
Attempts at censorship and the litigation arising out of it can be reduced if educators understand their rights and responsibilities, and are able to articulate the reasons for their judgments concerning educational materials. They should also have developed a clear policy and system for working with the community on these issues.
“Educational Censorship and School Health Education” Journal of School Health December 1988 Volume 58 Number 10 pp. 414.
Published in ERN March/April 1989 Volume 2 Number 2
Spiering, Jenna. 2017. “Reviewing to Exclude?: Critical Discourse Analysis of YA LGBTQ Book Reviews for School Librarians.” The ALAN Review 44, no. 2: 43-53.
United States v. American Library Association, 123 S.Ct. 2296 .2003.
West, Mark. 1997. Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children’s Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.
Each state’s Department of Public Instruction’s English Language Arts and School Library Media Offices can provide policy statements and other resources for teachers.
National Council of Teachers of English, 1111 W. Kenyon Rd., Urbana, IL 61801-1096. (800-369-6283); http://www.ncte.org/.
Center for Democracy and Technology, 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 1100, Washington, DC 20006. (202-637-9800); http://www.cdt.org/.
National Coalition Against Censorship, 275 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10001. (212-807-6222); http://www.ncac.org/.
This document was revised by an NCTE working committee comprising the following:
Antero Garcia, Chair– Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Lisa Loomis – Hartford Public Schools, Hartford, CT
Alan Teasley – Duke University, Durham, NC
This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.
Why a great education means engaging with controversy
JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN: At different times in American history there’s been a little more room for for controversial discussion, and then it’s been constricted, like in a staccato rhythm, like an accordion. So in the progressive era that preceded the First World War, there was a little bit more discussion and controversy in schools. This was the era of the current events lesson, when the newspaper industry actually promoted it, the lesson — you’d cut out an article from a newspaper and come in and discuss it. But then the United States entered World War I, and there was a rapid and massive constricting of discussion. Because during wartime, historically in this country, speech has been limited, and it was extremely limited in schools. And then, in the interwar period, that is, in the ’20s and ’30s, there was a little bit more wiggle room. During the Second World War and Cold War, much more constriction. In the ’60s and ’70s, during the Vietnam and civil rights era, opening up a little bit, but then starting in the ’80s, constricting as well. And there are different reasons for this across time. But one of the through lines that we find is that during war especially, or times of national crisis, the school boards and school officials are much more wary about allowing teachers and kids to say what they think.
There is controversy in a democracy, if you haven’t noticed, especially now. And if our teachers aren’t leading kids in discussions of controversies, the kids aren’t going to be educated in how to have a discussion. I think especially at this moment, you turn on the TV, and you’re told that after the commercial break, there’s going to be a debate about some subject — immigration, health care, whatever — and then you watch what ensues, and you see four people shouting at each other or past each other, really a set of sequential rants. That’s what our kids are going to think politics is unless our schools teach them how to engage controversial issues in a fair-minded, tolerant, and reasonable way. That’s very difficult, and people won’t learn to do it unless they’re taught to do it. If our teachers avoid controversial questions, our kids won’t get the needed experience of how to engage those questions.
If you interview American school teachers about their pre-service training, and you ask them, ‘As part of your preparation to become a teacher, did your teachers or your university engage you in the question of controversial issues? That is, were you taught how to teach about them?’ Most say no. And I think that anybody who’s going to be a teacher should have thought about, discussed, and addressed precisely what we’re talking about right now. So I’m not saying there should necessarily be, quote, “a class” on how to talk about controversial issues. But I think all disciplines are defined by controversy. English class is defined by, you know, what’s love really? History class is defined by: What is a democracy when you get right down to it? These disciplines are defined by controversies, and I would say, rather than having a special class on controversy that our teachers should be prepared to engage it as it arises in the disciplines that are defined by it.
I do think that there’s a danger whenever you engage in a controversial question of indoctrination — that is, of the teacher foisting her or his opinions on the student. And frankly, this is another reason why we have to prepare teachers in this realm, because they are the adult in the room, and I don’t think they have to remain neutral, but I do think that when they profess a political opinion, they have to identify it as such and also make clear to the kids in the room that the kids are not enjoined to share. So I think it’s fine for a teacher to say, ‘Look, I’m a political creature. Just like everyone else in America, I have political attitudes. But when I share them, I don’t necessarily expect you to share them.’ I think that’s another way, frankly, of modeling what it means to be a democratic citizen. I have opinions. I am not a neutral person. But I also should not and do not demand that you share those opinions. My job is to help you formulate your own.
I think it’s happening at every level of education. And I think one reason why in higher education we see so much self-censorship and so much fear about engaging in controversial issues, which I think is really what the safe space doctrine is about, it’s about fear. I think one reason is that people come after 18 years of schooling, right? They’ve already had experiences — or not — surrounding these subjects, and it’s more not. That is, they haven’t been prepared in their K through 12 education in how to engage controversial questions in a mutually respectful way. So, in fact, we shouldn’t be surprised that at the university level a lot of people simply avoid doing that. It’s weird and scary, and it has the potential of blowing up into some social media screed or attack. Who wants that?
Banned Books Lessons: Teaching about Censorship in High School
Looking for a fresh twist on a literature unit? For several years, I’ve been incorporating banned books lessons into my high school English curriculum. Why? For one, it allows me to implement choice reading. Also, it’s one of the most engaging units for my students. Whenever I can make reading engaging, I jump at the opportunity.
For good reason, teachers might be hesitant about mentioning “banned books” in the classroom. However, I think there’s a huge misconception when it comes to literature that’s been censored. It’s not just books like 50 Shades of Grey that have earned a bad rap. Many people might be surprised to learn about this list of censored texts:
- The Adventures of Captain Underpants – Banned for insensitivity and being unsuited to age group, as well as encouraging children to disobey.
- Where’s Waldo? – Banned because in one of the pictures, the side of a female is exposed.
- Where the Sidewalk Ends – Banned for promoting cannibalism and for promoting that children break dishes.
- Little Red Riding Hood – Banned because Little Red Riding Hood was depicted as carrying a bottle of wine in her basket.
- The Diary of Anne Frank – Banned for certain “sexually offensive” passages and because it might be “depressing” for young readers.
- Lord of the Flies – Banned for being “demoralizing, in that it implies that man is little more than an animal.”
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Banned in the ’60s because its mushroom and hookah imagery reflected the drug culture of the era. Later, in the ’90s, it was banned in New Hampshire for promoting “sexual fantasies.” Chinese officials in the ’30s perceived a problem with the book’s depiction of talking animals, considering it “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.”
- Fahrenheit 451 – Banned for anti-government advocacy.
- The Merriam Webster Dictionary – Banned for including the definition of oral sex.
- Where the Wild Things Are: Banned for traumatizing children with the thought that a mother as primary caregiver could send her child to bed without breakfast.
Every September, I look forward to Banned Books Week. I teach in a relatively conservative community. Banned books are not something I push my students to read with an agenda. Rather, I like to take the opportunity to educate students about literary censorship and intellectual freedom. These are new concepts for the majority of my freshmen. It’s so important to open their eyes to the fact that literary censorship happens across the world.
While banned books are a touchy subject for many, teachers can introduce them in a way that is culturally sensitive for any community. No matter what district you’re in, there are ways you can teach students about censorship to make them more well-rounded citizens. These lesson plan ideas would work for any time during the school year. I just like to capitalize on Banned Books Week to bring awareness that it even exists.
WAYS TO INCORPORATE LESSONS ON BANNED BOOKS
- Incorporate them as part of a genre study.
- Use them as options in literature circles, book clubs, or other independent reading programs.
- Have students read one and write an essay arguing whether or not it should be banned. Other possible essay topics: Do books have the power to sway beliefs and behavior? Do authors have a responsibility to write content that is clean and age-appropriate for young adult audiences?
- Debate whether or not books should be governed by the same type of rating system as books and movies.
- Ask students to research and explore literary censorship throughout history and across the world. They can jigsaw their findings.
- Students can interview school administrators, librarians, school board members, and parents to gather information about book banning and challenging in your district.
- Discuss censorship as you study classic literature that has been banned and challenged, including many of Shakespeare’s plays and famous novels like To Kill a Mockingbird.
- Have students explore their right to read as it relates to the First Amendment.
- Assign a web quest that allows students to research and explore various aspects of censorship.
- Complete a KWLS chart about banned books. You’ll be surprised at how very little your students actually know. Don’t have one? Try this.
TIPS FOR TREADING LIGHTLY WITH CENSORSHIP
When covering banned and challenged books in the classroom, especially in a conservative community, it’s helpful to ride the fence. Don’t take a stand for or against literary censorship. Instead, allow students to learn the facts and make their own decisions.
Involve parents. Keep them informed about your lessons and their importance. Ask them to provide a signature for the banned or challenged book their child wants to read. Keep in mind…most books have been banned or challenged, but people are often unaware of this fact. If you are asking a student to read a book because it has been censored, it’s important to gain parental permission.
Remember that everyone has different life experiences and backgrounds, which could make some students more sensitive to certain topics than others. In the past, I’ve asked students and their parents to fill out a survey in which I ask them if there are any topics they would prefer to avoid. Rarely do I get these requests, but they happen.
Be tasteful. While many banned and challenged books are harmless, there are others that truly are inappropriate for certain age groups. When literary censorship is covered in the classroom, teachers need to keep in mind that even high school students are impressionable and need adult guidance.
However you choose to approach it, teaching students about banned books is an excellent way to open their eyes to the truth. While literary censorship can certainly be beneficial for adolescents in some circumstances, raising up a generation of teenagers who is completely unaware of its existence is a dangerous road.
Have you taught your classes about censorship in the past? What are your favorite ways for engaging students with banned and challenged books?
Pique Student Interest with Banned Books
Click on the image below to view assignment details for introducing the concept of literary censorship in the high school classroom.
Against Censorship in Public Schools
Because Unitarian Universalists have historically affirmed the value of public education in a pluralistic society; and
Because we believe that free inquiry strengthens minds in the individual search for knowledge; and
WHEREAS, recent history shows a continuing series of attacks on access to information and ideas in the classroom as well as attempts to promote sectarian ideology in public education at national, state, provincial, and school-district levels; and
strategies are being pursued to eliminate from public school curricula any material considered by some parents to be offensive to their own religious beliefs; and
WHEREAS, a broad-based, multicultural public school system requires that teaching instruments, including textbooks, film, video, speakers, and student publications exhibit a varied and open exposition of historical, scientific, and cultural fact;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That the Unitarian Universalist Association, mindful of the roles played by religious movements throughout our history, encourages its members to affirm that educational excellence rather than the promotion of sectarian ideology is the proper business of public education and calls upon congregations and individual members:
- To educate themselves and the public on censorship and sectarian interference in education;
- To organize groups to monitor religious intrusions affecting public schools, especially curricula and educational materials;
- To encourage teachers, parents, students, librarians, and other school officials and community residents to remain vigilant in the fact of censorship challenges;
- To advocate laws, regulations, and policies in educational, legislative, and judicial arenas ensuring freedom from sectarian based censorship of curriculum and extra-curricular activities, which include student publications;
- To oppose vigorously efforts to make public education conform to any group’s sectarian beliefs; and
- To support the development of curricula designed to teach the historic and cultural influence of religious movements and religious motivation while excluding the teaching of specific sectarian doctrine.
Thirty-seven percent of parents believe that sexually explicit content and nudity are acceptable reasons for the censorship of books in school. That’s one of the findings of a recent deep dive into the history of banned books in the USA and a survey of 1,000+ parents done by SuperSummary*, an online resource that provides in-depth study guides.
Censored and Banned Books By The Numbers
The American Library Association (ALA) has kept a database of book challenges since 1990, and SuperSummary looked at the titles which were challenged between 2001 and 2018. Any person can submit a challenge about any form of media, and the ALA tracks those which appear in the media and those submitted directly to them.
According to the data, 2004 was a peak year for book challenges, with 547 challenges, followed by a valley in 2005, and a peak again in 2006, with 546. Book challenges decreased between 2010 and 2016 (except for 2012), and they’ve been rising again since. Books about LGBTQ people, and especially books by and about transgender individuals, ranked among the most commonly challenged books between 2016 and 2018, and graphic novels saw their numbers increase during this time as well. It’s hard not to see that the increase in inclusive storytelling and the increase in popularity and availability of the graphic format have led to a rise in the number of challenges during these years.
In addition to looking at the numbers of challenges per year, SuperSummary pulled out the individual titles challenged and how many years those titles have been on the list. The Harry Potter series and The Perks of Being a Wallflower were the most frequently challenged books.
More interesting, though, is seeing which authors have been most frequently challenged. Toni Morrison has seen her books challenged for 16 of the years examined, followed by Stephen Chbosky, John Green, and J.K. Rowling seeing 12 years of book challenges each.
Why and What Parents Deem Acceptable Book Censorship
Parent reactions to book challenges offers some powerful—and concerning—insight into what and why challenges are as rampant as they are.
In our current political reality, it should come as little surprise that political affiliation affects beliefs in book challenges. Roughly one-third of both Independent and Democratic identifying individuals believed book bans in schools were acceptable when necessary, while 47% of Republicans did.
But who parents believed should have the power to censor books differs more starkly; moreover, it complicates what they report about their own beliefs in book censorship. While any person can submit a challenge and it becomes recorded in ALA’s database, those surveyed believed only a handful of individuals within a school should have the power to make book ban calls.
Most parents believed that no one should have the power to ban books from public schools. But pressed to determine who is most empowered to make those decisions, school principals, superintendents, PTA members, and school librarians topped the list, with teachers and parents at the bottom.
Compared to their belief in censorship for other media, though, books fall low on the list for parents. Social media, video games, and movies earn more favor for censorship. This could be because parents see books in a category that differs from social media or movies—as being educational, as opposed to for entertainment only.
That said, 37% of parents agreed with censoring book content and 22% said they weren’t sure how they felt.
The majority of parents (62%) surveyed believed that a rating system for books, like those for movies and other media, would be valuable. Parents would find a system that rates the levels of a book’s sexual explicitness, nudity, Satanism, or discussions of suicide and drug use useful. They are far less concerned about violence—a key aspect of rating systems for visual media. Only 23% of parents believed violence needed to be censored, as opposed to 53% saying the same for sexual explicitness.
Yet another 22% of parents believed that no content should be censored in schools.
When it comes to books available in a public school library, books unsuited for a child’s age group were least supported, followed by books with marijuana references, books with alcohol references, and The Quran.
The bulk of parents were okay with challenged books being made available to their readers, suggesting that while over a third agree with the idea of censoring books, it’s possible that same percentage are those unlikely to be okay with their children reading those books. Put another way, most parents don’t agree with censorship and are also not concerned about their children reading challenged books.
But the challenged books parents are comfortable allowing their children to read highlight something more noteworthy: as a book becomes more well-known, be it because of its cultural influence or the length of time on a most challenged list, the more likely they are okay with the book being read. Harry Potter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, and the Captain Underpants series top the list of banned books parents are comfortable with their children reading.
But What Does It Mean?
The survey results do a disservice a bit in conflating book challenges, censorship, and book banning. The ALA database covers book challenges, which don’t always result in a book ban. Censorship is a giant term and could mean anything from blacking out words or passages from books to making a book completely unavailable or more quiet and dangerous forms of censorship, such as gatekeepers purposefully choosing not to include a book in libraries or curriculum because of their own disagreement with it (or fear of what they might experience were they to have the book available). Quiet censorship is especially rampant when it comes to inclusive literature.
One of the limitations of SuperSummary’s study is the language of how we talk about and discuss sensitivity topics. When book challenges are brought public—either via the media or via the database ALA keeps—there are terms used to describe why the book is a problem, but those terms all mean different things to different people. What does it mean for a book to be “sexually explicit” or for it to depict “nudity?” Those definitions are in the minds of every individual and there’s no single consensus for them.
What does it mean for a book to be inappropriate for a child’s age and how does that relate to the school library? Any librarian working in a school library in America operates in loco parentis, meaning that they’re obligated to keep the safety of students at the forefront. This extends to the books in their collection, suggesting that school libraries already limit their materials to age-appropriate material.
Implementing a rating system for books would require a common language and belief in what appropriate language, violence, and “sexual content” mean or look like across the board. Being objective is impossible in this capacity, and even if the work were given to an outside body, like the MPAA for movie ratings, more complications would arise.
Book censorship is a reality, and for young people, it’s real and insidious. This is why inclusive books have become especially vital in recent years as more books featuring a diverse human experience have found their way to more shelf space—and why we’ve seen a rise in those books being challenged.
*SuperSummary surveyed 1,007 American parents, of which 547 self-identified as female, 457 self-identified male, and three self-identified as neither male nor female (further details on what this means were not made available).
Can a public school official legally censor a school-sponsored publication, like a newspaper or yearbook?
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It depends. If the school has by policy or practice turned the school-sponsored publication into a public forum, or a place traditionally open to the free exchange of ideas, then the school has less authority to censor content. However, most school newspapers are not public forums, and because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, school officials generally have broad leeway to censor school-sponsored publications.
In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the high court ruled that school officials can censor school-sponsored publications if their decision is “reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical purpose.” This means school officials must show that they have a reasonable educational reason for censoring the material.
The high court gave several examples of material that could be censored based on a reasonable educational purpose, including material that is “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.”
The court went so far as to say that under the Hazelwood standard, school officials could censor school-sponsored materials that would “associate the school with anything other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”
Student advocates decried the Hazelwood decision as blatant censorship that would lead to a drastic reduction in students’ First Amendment rights. For this reason, several states passed so-called “anti-Hazelwood laws” that grant student journalists more protection. Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Oregon passed such laws after the decision. (California already had a law protecting student journalists.)
Category: Freedom of Speech
High school journalists stand up to censorship and win
BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Armed with a new Vermont law that protects student journalists, four high school editors have stood up to censorship and won, prompting their school to revamp its media policy.
The Burlington High School students had posted a story on the school newspaper website that they collectively wrote on a school employee facing unprofessional conduct charges from the state. They had gotten a tip about the investigation and filed a public records request, posting the story the night of Sept. 10.
The next morning, the principal asked the students’ adviser to take it down. The students quickly consulted with legal experts about what do to and wrote on the website that their article had been censored.
Days later, the principal said the students could repost the story since it had been picked up by local media. Then, Sept 15, the school did another about-face and said it would change its policy on media, based on the New Voices law.
“I think I’ve learned more in the past week than I have in my entire life. It’s been really incredible,” senior Halle Newman, 17, said.
The big lesson is she’s learned to stand up for herself and what she believes in and for their rights as a student press, she said. They’ve also witnessed how important journalism is to a community, she said, from the community reaction and support.
“I think on a larger scale we’ve just learned how important and how vital the first amendment is to just our country, and our society and our government,” said senior Nataleigh Noble, 17.
Burlington High School Principal Noel Green didn’t return a phone call seeking comment. The school district announced Sept. 15 that “all previously practiced or adopted guidelines regarding publications in the BHS Register are no longer in effect.” The school board, and the administration, will develop a written policy consistent with the new law, in a process involving the students, the district said.
“The New Voices law is intended to ensure free speech and free press protections for public school students in order to encourage students to become educated, informed, and responsible members of society,” the district said. Thirteen states have passed similar legislation.
“The importance of this case was that it really did provide a good solid example that these laws really are important and do work,” said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Washington-based Student Press Law Center, where about 40 percent of the incoming calls are about censorship.
Now at least two of the Vermont students see journalism in their futures.
“We’ve gotten like such a rush from putting out this important information and helping out community,” said Noble. Newman said she’d always wanted to pursue journalism but the experience confirmed it.
“It was obviously overwhelming and hectic but it was also exciting and something I can see myself doing again,” she said.
The Role of Censorship in School
School authorities face great complexities and inevitable challenges when deciding to make or not to make censorship decisions in schools. Matters of educational content, age level, acceptability by parents and communities, and appropriateness in the school setting are among the decisions having to be made. When school official decisions result in disagreements, the courts eventually are called upon to render final disposition of such matters. This article offers select examples of representative censorship decisions and final dispositions are discussed.
The United States has required its young people to be educated since the early days of the nation. Since children are required to attend school until they reach a certain age or have achieved a stated level of education, (1) they become captive audiences. Divergent laws, policies, rules and practices through the years and across the numerous school districts and college/university governing boards have imposed or allowed various forms of censorship involving textbook content, teacher classroom presentation style and content, assigned readings, and extra-curricular school activities. Through the years, public debate and protests over the amount of and type of censorship in the schools have taken place; discussions and disagreements over what forms censorship should be practiced in public education have unfolded; and debates over who ought be charged with supervising such allowed censorship have been held in both formal and informal forums? (2) This essay examines many of the issues that exist relevant to deciding whether and when censorship is permissible and/or advisable and who ought be empowered to make such decisions. Censorship is an extremely sensitive, value-laden, and little understood phenomenon that needs better exposure for the public, students, teachers, parents, school boards, and school administrators.
It is argued here that censorship is only valid, ethical, and required when it appears to be the only way to avoid or to mitigate provable physical, social, emotional, or intellectual harmful outcomes for students, teachers, or the school itself. When schools censor ideas, students become increasingly interested in such subjects and typically discover some clandestine means to gain access to these taboo ideas. When such means are thus acquired by students, there is lost any chance that teachers, librarians, or parents can become personally aware of and involved in contextualizing, prioritizing, or explaining what the student has secured. When teachers, librarians, and parents are involved with what is encountered by children, there is less chance that harm from such material will visit that individual.
Censorship, as discussed here, is defined as the forbidding, blocking, limiting, or obstructing access to information for whatever reason. Censorship has taken on a negative, even demonized, loading in our US culture: however, using the above definition, parental and teacher gate-keeping qualify as typically positive and generally acceptable examples of censorship. Parents and teachers–and many others–are obliged by their legitimate positions to censor specific words and images from student access. This article focuses on these teacher, school administrator, and school board endeavors that forbid, block, limit, or obstruct student access to information.
School censors believe, in most cases, that censorship is the most expedient, safe, and familiar way to keep salacious, frightening, inciting, titillating, overwhelming, or seditious words or images out of reach of students that might likely inhibit, prohibit, obfuscate, sidetrack, or contradict what is intended to be taught in the school. Such beliefs are not always grounded in fact: and some that are factually grounded do not justify censorship as a remedy.
Racial issue understanding and protection against racial slurs are one issue that frequently suggest some level of censorship in order to not offend anyone negatively focused upon and to ward off potential parental lawsuits. …