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Essay/Term paper: Censorship in public schools

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Persuasive Essays

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Censorship in Public Schools

-A principal in a California high school bans five books written by Richard Brautigan
because he thinks they might contain "obscenities or offensive sexual references" (Berger
-A Vermont high school librarian is forced to resign because she fought the school
board's decision to remove Richard Price's The Wanderers, and to "restrict" the use of
Stephen King's Carrie and Patrick Mann's Dog Day Afternoon (Jones 33).
-An Indiana school board takes action that leads to the burning of many copies of a
textbook that deals with drugs and the sexual behavior of teenagers (Berger 61).
These cases of censorship in public schools are not unusual and there is evidence
that such challenges are increasing (Woods 2). These challenges are actually typical of
the ones being leveled against school libraries today. These challenges can come from
one person or a group concerned with the suitability of the material in question. In almost
every case, the effort to ban books is said to be "justified by fear of the harmful effects
that the books may have on young children" (Berger 59). The result of these censorship
attempts has been two opposing sides: one side believes that "more suitable materials can
usually be found from among the wealth of materials available on most subjects (Woods
1), and the other side believes that students' "intellectual freedom" can be upheld only if
students are allowed to examine "any available relevant materials in order to gain the
insights needed to reach their own conclusions" (Woods 1). In the simplest terms, the
debate is between censorship and the freedom to read.
The most important question when discussing censorship deals with its
constitutionality; does censorship violate the First Amendment's guarantee of free
speech? Censorship advocates actually use the words of the First Amendment to make
their point; "the amendment reads, 'Congress shall make no law...", it does not say,
"There shall be no law...'" (Berger 69). They believe that, although the federal
government is forbidden to censor, it is not unconstitutional for states and local
communities to pass censorship laws (Berger 69). Also, since the US Supreme Court
does not believe the First Amendment protects all forms of expression (child
pornography, etc.), then proponents of censorship believe that censorship laws are
constitutional (Berger 69). Anti-censorship has the upper-hand, constitutionally, at least,
since "judges, from local courts to the Supreme Court, seem firmly on the anti-censorship
side" (Berger 61). The courts have time and again ruled that the Constitution prohibits
Congress from censorship of any form.
These two opposing sides have butted heads again and again leaving behind
landmark cases for future legal actions. One of the most famous of those cases was Pico
vs. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, which was the
first school library censorship case to reach the Supreme Court (Jones 35). In March
1976, the Island Trees School Board in New York removed eleven books that they
deemed "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy" (Berger 59)
from the high school library shelves. Among these books were Slaughterhouse Five by
Kurt Vonnegut, A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich by Alice Childress, and Soul on Ice
by Eldridge Cleaver (Jones 37). The board felt that it had "a moral obligation to protect
the children in our schools from this moral danger" (Berger 60). Five students then sued
the school board on grounds that their decision violated their First Amendment rights.
The suit was passed around the courts until June 1982 when the Supreme Court took up
the cause and ruled that the school board would have to defend its removal of the books.
The Supreme Court decided that since the library is used voluntarily, they can choose
books there freely and that, as Justice Brennan stated, "the First Amendment rights of
students may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves
of a school library (Jones 45). The Supreme Court's decision was that "courts may act our
of concern for the First Amendment rights of those affected by school officials' action"
(Jones 45). On August 12, 1982, the school board voted to put the books back on the
shelves; (special note: the librarian was told to inform the parents of students who
checked out those books) (Berger 60).
The advocates of school library book censorship believe that adults must have
control over what children read. They feel that unless responsible adults oversee what
students are reading, students will be exposed to the worst in literature. This literature
can go from simply causing offense, to "resulting in emotional damage and even leading
to anti-social behavior" (Berger 61). Their beliefs lead them to pull the offending books
from the shelves so that young readers are protected, as was the case in Pico and as was
the case when "Robin Hood was considered communistic, Tarzan was living with Jane
without benefit of clergy, and Huckleberry Finn was a racist" (Woods 13). Each time they
use words like controversial, filthy, immoral, lascivious, lewd, obscene, sacrilegious, and
violent, they are actually using only one word, censorship.
The anti-censorship group believes that students have the same constitutional
freedoms as everyone else, including the right to read whatever they want. They feel that
it is only in this way "that children can develop the taste and understanding to distinguish
between trash and serious literature" (Berger 61).
And it is with this group that I make my stand against censorship. The purpose of
education remains what it has always been in a free society:
to develop a free and reasoning human being who can think for himself, who
understands his own and other cultures, who lives compassionately and
cooperatively with his fellow man, who respects both himself and others, who
has developed self-discipline and self-motivation, who can laugh at the world,
and who can successfully develop survival strategies for existence in the world.
(Jones 184)
As one who is striving to be an English teacher I know that literature has a significant
part in the education of man. I am aware that I have responsibilities to my students, for
knowing "many books from many cultures", for "demonstrating a personal commitment
to the search for truth through wide reading", for "respecting the unique qualities and
potential of each student" and for "exhibiting the qualities of the educated man" (Jones
184). With these responsibilities, I believe that I would not be serving my students to the
best of my abilities if I were not a strong advocate against the censorship of books. As the
NCTE writes, "to deny the freedom of choice in fear that it may be unwisely used is to
destroy the freedom itself" (Jones 181).
As stalwart and idealistic as I am, I still understand that at some point in my
career I will come under attack from a censorship group unhappy with my selection of
curricula. The American School Board Journal gives a list of nine strategies that can be
used to help reduce the chances of an attack; these include "involving citizens in the book
selection process", "giving objecting parents and students and out", and "don't ban or
remove books until they've been afforded a fair trial" (Woods 35). A similar list by Diane
Divoky is a little more extreme but no less helpful. Her list includes hints like, "if you're
going to use a book with obscenities, check to see if there are approved books in the
school library containing the same words", "before you take on a high-risk project, try to
align yourself with a veteran staff member", and "at the moment you suspect a problem
lies down the line, call the best lawyer within your reach" (Woods 34).
As for my personal opinion as a citizen and a reader, I have always been leery of
censors. Censors of school library books never announce that it is their morality that has
been damaged. It is always "they" who will be damaged, it is always someone else's
moral fiber that is being protected. In an excerpt from possibly the most banned book of
the modern era, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caufield reacts to an obscenity scrawled
on a wall:
It drove me damn near crazy. I though how Phoebe and all the other little kids
would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some
dirty kid would tell them what it meant and how they'd all think about it and
maybe even worry about if for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever'd
written it. (Salinger 165)
This phrase from Salinger's classic novel, for me, illustrates exactly how censors react
when they find anything they deem objectionable in the school. Why will people react
emotionally, even violently, to certain spoken or written words, while in many cases
having mild reactions to the actions described by the words? While D.H. Lawrence has
seen considerable censorship due to his affinity for sexual content, Shakespeare has
enjoyed relative peace even though Othello and his lover made "the beast with two
backs" (I.I, 119-120). I, myself, will continue to struggle against the censors who seek to
control written expression in our schools while waving the banner of freedom, for it is
censorship that we must fear, not words, and hope that in the future, the true obscenities
of the world (poverty, hunger, war) will be what we shall strive to censor.

Works Cited
Berger, Melvin. Censorship. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.
Jones, Frances M. Defusing Censorship: The Librarian's Guide to Handling Censorship
Conflicts. Phoenix: The Oryx Press, 1983.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945.
Woods, L.B. A Decade of Censorship in America: The Threat to Classrooms and
Libraries. London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1979.


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