Conflicts of Censorship
The Pros and Cons
The Censorship battle has largely been fought in the public school systems of this country, but has also affected public libraries as well. The pros and cons of censorship must be carefully considered to be fair to all parties concerned. Both schools and teachers should have some say in what is presented in the classroom, while parents and students likely should have an equal amount of say concerning what the students do and do not want to read. The types of censorship, including that in the classroom, in the library, in the curriculum, and on the internet must be balanced between a student’s right to know and community and family standards, which are intended to protect children from the harmful effects of unrestrained access of materials deemed by some as inappropriate.
The very liberal Left Wing advocates argue for a student’s right to know and against the suppression of ideas. A student’s right to know is the idea that few, if any restrictions should be placed on a student’s books or curriculum. It is argued that students introduced to many ideas will learn to discern their own thoughts and feelings on controversial issues. These liberals believe that the suppression of ideas will greatly reduce a student’s ability to think critically.
Christian fundamentalists have been accused of promoting organized censorship attempts in the public school forum against such issues as evolution and certain forms of sex education, i.e. abortion, safe sex, and homosexuality. The case for censorship is that adults have the right and obligation to protect children from these and other harmful influences. It has also been said that the censorship issues are part of a larger campaign to impose their particular curriculum focus on public schools and to build support for public school alternatives such as vouchers.
But these fundamental Christian concerns have also exposed an important educational issue, the invisibility of religion in our history text books. Three studies of public school text books, funded by the Department of Education, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and People for the American Way, have agreed that textbooks minimize the importance of religion in American life. Although 96% of Americans believe in God and 58% go to a place of worship, history texts do not reflect this reality. These texts have effectively censored all forms of religion out of their pages. There is an important difference between teaching about religion and promoting religion.
The conservative Christians’ freedom of speech, press, and religion are consistently violated in school texts in the name of separation of church and state, while other political agendas are allowed ample coverage. They are told to leave their faith at the schoolhouse door while Atheistic views, homosexual lifestyle views, and the like are actively included in school curriculums. Should conservatives be excluded from policy-setting and curriculum decisions because their views are based on religion? Does a student’s “right to know” include religious morals and values or only liberal agendas? Does the “suppression of ideas” only apply to religion? If tolerance is at issue, then why not tolerate religious ideas as well as liberal objectives?
But the American Civil Liberties Union says that censorship is hardly a monopoly of any political group. Books are likely to be addressed with a censorship issue if they contain controversial sexually related materials, profane language, racial slurs or stereotypes, violence, occult topics (New Age philosophies), scary stories, or material depicting rebellion against authority. Most schools have tried to compromise by balancing parental and community concerns with the need for academic freedom and the educational and constitutional issues that arise when teachers are given mandates about what books they can and cannot teach. When censorship is at issue, no administrative guidelines or legal recourse can replace the open lines of communication which allows parents, students, and school personnel to be heard with respect and consideration.
Censorship in school primarily involves issues of curriculum and library materials. Other dimensions of censorship include student speech, teacher speech, and increasingly the internet. What distinguishes between censorship attempts and legitimate parental concerns over a particular book’s appropriateness? What distinctions might be made between complaints about a required book in a required class versus an optional book in an elective class or calls to ban a book from the school library?
Teachers’ choices of literature for student use in their classrooms are sometimes challenged when they are of a controversial nature. When students and parents are uncomfortable with ideas covered, words used and/or pictures in a particular book, it sometimes becomes a censorship issue. When a book is used, it should be used within a context that explains the novel’s historical background and explores issues of racism, language dialects, and the use of racial slurs, however, no student should be forced to read a book they are uncomfortable with. Alternate choices should be made available to the student.
Book banning in school and public libraries have become common place in the 1990’s. Books that contain problematic language such as cursing or racial slurs and stories on tough subjects like sex issues are often targets of censorship concerns. Many parents believe a book’s subject matter condones a particular behavior or attitude; therefore they react negatively to books they perceive as offensive. When confronted, many schools react by pulling the books off the shelves themselves to avoid controversy. One school system headed off controversies by putting bright pink slips in controversial books to warn parents to examine the book before the child reads it.
Censorship issues related to school curriculum is about both what is included in it and what is left out of it. Not only have texts been shown to leave out religion as a positive social force in the vitality our country, they have also been shown to be rather one sided where the history of our country is portrayed to be primarily based on that of white males. Demands for censorship of sexist works often come from the right and left, where critics complain that content in books and other curriculum materials is particularly degrading to girls and women. Our texts still leave much unsaid about the role of women and the heritage of other ethnicities in our nation’s history, especially where Native Americans are concerned. The tendency of instructional materials to ignore the unpleasant realities of both the present and the past is also a censorship issue.
Those who determine what should be known by this nations’ school children have a powerful influence over how our future society thinks and behaves. The indoctrination of our students by the political agendas of both conservatives and liberals as well, should not be the focus of any school curriculum. Controversies such as Creationism versus Evolution, Abstinence versus Safe Sex, and other issues valued by both sides have made public schools a battle ground for political agendas that would probably be better left out of the school curriculum.
But if these issues must be included in the curriculum, then all viewpoints should be fairly represented because all viewpoints are based on some sort of value system. Viewpoints that are based on particular religious and moral views should not be left out just because they are of a religious nature. The concept of viewpoint discrimination, according to current case law, is that schools may prohibit all speech regarding any particular subject, but once they permit speech on a particular subject, they may not suppress the expression of alternative viewpoints regarding that subject. Such discrimination violates the government’s obligation to maintain neutrality and places the government at odds with the first amendment.
Safety on the super highway must be addressed by school systems. Used effectively, the internet has incredible potential to expand student’s horizons. Unfortunately, misuse can be detrimental to those we hope to benefit. It is imperative that schools follow basic online safety guidelines. Pornography, pedophiles, and violence are some of the danger zones that schools must be made aware of and censored. An example of one dangerous interaction of a student on the internet was a 12-year-old girl who was assigned a report on dogs. While searching the Web for information about dogs, she came across a site about bestiality, and driven by curiosity, went from one site to another until she was caught several months later. Other examples are bomb making instructions, and solicitations by pedophiles. Schools must draft an “Acceptable Use Policy”, instruct students on internet safety, and install filters to insure students a danger free learning zone. An AUP is a written policy telling parents and students how the internet should and should not be used at school. Students and parents must agree to the stipulations before the student is allowed to go online. The AUP should contain the five components listed below:
1. Statement of Educational Purpose-what a student should gain educationally by internet use.
2. Statement of Student Responsibility-what a student should and should not do online.
3. Statement of Personal Safety Requirements and Procedures-similar to student responsibilities but the emphasis is on safety.
4. Statement of Consequences for Violations-penalties range from denial of access to suspension, depending on the violation.
5. Statement of Consent-ensures that both the student and parents agree with the policies.
Two of the most common arguments are violations of community standards and age appropriateness. Both concepts are important to the discussion and are often used by people concerned with particular political or religious viewpoints on the public school system. Community standards have been described as those standards which are accepted by the vast majority of a particular community, though these can not overrule our basic constitutional rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. But the rights of individual students and their parents, as well as teachers, should also be considered. No child should be forced to read or view materials either they or their parents deem inappropriate according to their family’s standards; neither should materials be withheld by the community that are appropriate to an educational setting. In the controversy over Huck Finn, it was argued that teachers should not be required to teach a book if they were uncomfortable with its tone. A teacher’s freedom to choose appropriate materials should not be usurped by those who would force a prescribed curriculum or particular book.
Another common complaint is that certain materials are not age appropriate. This is more common in elementary and middle schools but does occur in upper level schools also. The most common controversy of this type involves the issue of incorporating discussions of homosexual relationships in the early classroom environment. The books Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate have provoked an uncompromising reaction from the Christian community or what is known in political terms as the “Religious Right.”
This censorship battle has largely been fought in the public school system, but has also affected public libraries as well. The pros and cons of censorship must be carefully considered to be fair to all parties concerned. Schools and teachers should have some say in what they present in the classroom, while parents and students probably need an equal amount of say concerning what the students read. The types of censorship, including that in the classroom, in the library, in the curriculum, and on the internet must be balanced between a student’s right to know and community and family standards.