What's the Policy?
As information and ideas have increasingly permeated the world of children, the debate over censorship has heated up considerably. Policies about approval of teaching material or about "appropriate material" are rarely called censorship by district or school administrators, but they often forbid the use or display by students and teachers of certain books or academic materials.
Among the most common causes for invoking censorship policies are "the three Ss": swear words, Satanism, and sex. In Monroeville, N.J., a parent objected to a school copy of Webster's Dictionary because it contains sexually explicit definitions. It was removed. In 2005, an Alabama state legislator proposed removing from public school libraries all books by homosexual authors, as well as those featuring gay and lesbian characters.
How Does It Affect Teachers?
New teachers, typically fresh from the freewheeling intellectual environment of the college campus, are often shocked to discover censorship in the schools. Often, too, they discover it the hard way: they are reprimanded when a school newspaper they are supervising contains an off-color joke or vulgar language; a children's book their college teachers were wild about turns up on the district's banned list; they are expected to confront students who have downloaded pornography or racist materials from the Internet during class. Suddenly, censorship is seen in a new light.
Consequences for teachers who choose not to censor their activities or materials can be severe. Recently, for example, an experienced and highly respected journalism teacher was released from her role as advisor to the school newspaper. The school principal was dissatisfied with the tone and much of the content of the school newspaper. Several of the journalism students and newspaper staffers were sure that their advisor-teacher was released because she supported them in writing such hard-hitting articles as an investigative piece on how easily teenagers can buy cigarettes in the town's local stores. They were convinced that replacing her is an act of censorship. The teacher lost her position, but has added a new term to the educational lexicon: happy talk journalism.
It is useful, then, for a new teacher to inquire about any censorship issues before accepting a new assignment. But since even the word censorship sets people's teeth on edge, we recommend that you inquire instead about policies dealing with "controversial material" or policies guiding the selection of "appropriate teaching materials."
What Are the Pros?
Most parents, community members, and teachers firmly believe that there are limits to what children and adolescents ought to be exposed. Further, they believe the school board has the responsibility to put in place and monitor censorship policies designed to protect students from exposure to inappropriate material. The late Albert Shanker, a legendary fighter for teachers' rights, nicely stated the larger issue behind such cases:
There is a tension between a teacher's academic freedom and a community's right to prescribe an appropriate curriculum for its students, between a teacher's academic freedom and his responsibility not to indoctrinate his students, between the school board's right to set a curriculum and a parent's right to determine what is appropriate for his child . . . between a student's right to learn whatever he wants and the parent's right to shield his child from potentially harmful ideas.
What Are the Cons?
The limits on academic freedom and free speech that such policies impose may end up being too constricting. As a result, students and teachers might be forbidden to engage in potentially valuable learning experiences. Groups such as the American Association of University Professors have taken strong positions calling for more freedom in all classrooms, not just the college classroom. They report the growing threat of censorship at all levels of education and have called for teachers to be granted the professional right to select the material they believe is useful in promoting teaching and learning. As a visit to the Internet will demonstrate, many other anti-school censorship exist and look upon this issue as part of a larger social oppression.
What Do You Think?
1. Do you believe it is appropriate for precollegiate schools to have censorship rules?
2. What censorship issues, if any, came up during your years in elementary and secondary school?
3. What do you think is the most appropriate way to explore the censorship policies of a potential place of employment?
David Hill, "Defending Mrs. Halas," Education Week, March 10, 1999; "Schools Fend Off More Attempts at Censorship," USA Today, August 30, 1990, p. 1D.
Commission on Academic Freedom and Pre-College Education, Liberty and Learning in the Schools (Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors, 1986). Note: The Shanker statement is from p. 3 of this report.
Mark Fitzgerald, “A Post-Hazelwood Lawsuit Over High School Censorship.” Editor and Publisher, April 20, 2005.
For more information on censorship and academic freedom, visit these web sites, then reflect on the questions that follow.
Banned Books Online
This site, maintained by the libraries of the University of Pennsylvania, includes descriptions of many works that have been censored in communities and schools.
National Coalition Against Censorship
This organization's web site includes updates on their latest activities, including a campaign against abstinence-only sex education. It also offers access to the “File Room,” an interactive exhibition of cases of censorship.
Parents Against Bad Books in Schools
PABBIS maintains a list of “objectionable materials” and advises parents who want to remove these from their children’s schools.
This classic article, “Banning Books From the Classroom: How to Handle Cries for Censorship,” offers advice for dealing in a reasoned way with parents who find material objectionable.
For Further Reflection
1. Which of the viewpoints represented among these web sites best represents your point of view on acceptable classroom materials? Why?
2. What steps can you, as a teacher, take to make sure that students and families are comfortable with the materials used in your classes?