Reading, Writing, and Censorship

When Reading Good Books Can Get Schools In Trouble: First of Two Articles

By Barbara Miner

“Annie On My Mind” is an award-winning novel about two young women who meet at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, fall in love, and struggle with declaring their homosexuality to family and friends. The book had been in the high school libraries in Olathe, KS, without incident since the early 1980s.

Until Dec. 13, 1993. On that day, Olathe superintendent Ron Wimmer unilaterally ordered the book removed from the high school library.

Wimmer said he made his decision in order to “avoid controversy.” In preceding months, “Annie On My Mind” had been the target of protests by religious fundamentalists, and the book had been burned on the steps outside the Kansas City School District offices. Wimmer’s action did anything but avoid controversy, however. Student petitions calling for the book’s reinstatement, rancorous public hearings, and a lawsuit ensued. The School Board in Olathe, a city of 64,000 people 25 miles south of Kansas City, MO, backed Wimmer’s decision. It argued that the schools had a legitimate pedagogical right to teach students that homosexuality is wrong.

Almost two years later, on Nov. 29, 1995, the matter was settled when Federal Judge G. Thomas Van Bebber ruled that the book was removed because the board and superintendent “disagreed with ideas expressed in the book,” not because the book lacked educational merit. Van Bebber ruled that the banning was an unconstitutional attempt to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

Few challenges to books in our public schools are quite so dramatic. But the controversy over “Annie On My Mind” nonetheless highlights a reality facing teachers and school districts across the country. Censorship is alive and well. Further, it is sometimes part of a larger campaign by conservative or religious fundamentalist groups to impose their particular curriculum focus on public schools and to build support for public school alternatives such as vouchers.

“[T]he urge to censor is hardly the monopoly of any political group,” notes the American Civil Liberties Union. “But the greatest threat today comes from the fundamentalist right, with its ideological hostility to other religious or philosophical systems, to homosexuality, to sex education, and indeed to the basic idea of secular education.”

As with any issue, however, scratch beneath the surface and complexities emerge. Only the minority of censorship controversies are as clear cut as Olathe’s attempt to censor “Annie On My Mind.”

How, for example, are teachers to distinguish 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? Are complaints about curricula potentially grounded in a larger problem of poor relations between a teacher and parents?

Teachers must also address the issue of self-censorship. If certain books are avoided because they are controversial, how does that undercut what should be one of the central purposes of education — to help students learn to critically evaluate and make informed decisions about controversial issues so they can become full participants in this country’s civic and political life?

“The health of a democracy is not so much about how people agree but how they choose to disagree,” argues Don Ernst, director of government relations at the Association for the Supervision of Curriculum and Development (ASCD) and the group’s point person on censorship. “Students need to have the skills, the abilities to critique and analyze a wide array of viewpoints.”

Censorship in school primarily involve issues of curriculum and library materials. Other dimensions of censorship include student speech, teacher speech (particularly around issues of foreign policy and sexual orientation) and, increasingly, the Internet.

There are no hard and fast rules about which books may be targeted. Potentially controversial books range from William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” for its profanity, to Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” because it contains the word “nigger,” to Bruce Coville’s book “My Teacher Glows in the Dark,” because it includes the words “armpit farts” and “farting”. “Where’s Waldo?” was pulled from the Springs Public School library on Long Island because there was a picture of a naked breast on one page — even though, as former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen wrote, the breast was “the size of the last letter in this sentence.” In the Baltimore County, MD school libraries, Kevin O’Malley’s “Frog Went A-Courtin’ ” was placed in a restricted area because of Froggy’s nefarious activities, including burning money and speeding away from the cat police. In West Virginia, this November, the Jackson County School Board pulled 16 books from school libraries including Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” “100 Q&A about AIDS,” and Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October.”

The prime targets for censorship are books that mention sex, talk about sex education, or deal with gay and lesbian issues. Books are also likely to come under attack if they contain profane language or violence, are seen as condoning “New Age” philosophies such as meditation, are deemed “too scary” for little kids, or don’t teach “proper respect for authority.”

Rarely do those challenging books use the word censorship. “Nobody wants to call himself or herself a censor,” notes Mark I. West, professor of English at the University of North Carolina and author of “Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children’s Literature.” Says West: “Everybody says they are protecting children, or they are defending against blasphemy, or defending family values.”

What is Censorship?

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA), in the book “Censorship and Selection: Issues and Answers for Schools,” defines censorship as: “[T]he removal, suppression, or restricted circulation of literary, artistic, or educational materials — of images, ideas, and information — on the grounds that these are morally or otherwise objectionable in light of standards applied by the censor.” The book, published jointly with the American Library Association (ALA), distinguishes between censorship and the ongoing, necessary reality of selecting educationally appropriate materials for the curriculum and school library. As a rule of thumb, the AASA book argues, censorship rests on an exclusion of materials, while selection involves an inclusion of materials “carried out by trained professionals, familiar with the wide variety of available choices and guided by a clear grasp of the educational purposes to be fulfilled.”

There are generally three levels of challenges to school materials, according to Deanna Duby, director of education policy for People for the American Way, a Washington D.C.-based organization opposed to censorship and other attacks on the freedom to learn in public schools.

  • A parent who doesn’t want their child to read a particular book.
  • A parent, teacher, administrator, or school board member who argues that no one in the class or school should read the book in dispute.
  • Someone who is part of an organized campaign, whether of a local or national group, and who goes in ready for a fight and wants to make a broader political point.

The first type of challenge is often worked out at the classroom level when a teacher explains the curricular purpose of a book or how a book with profane language can still have educational merit, or offers an alternative reading assignment to a student. While there is a tendency to sometimes lump together censorship and challenges to books, teachers need to understand that any parent has the right to question the educational appropriateness of a particular book. The Bill of Rights protects not only freedom of speech but the right to petition the government for redress of grievances — and public school teachers are government employees.

Most experts on censorship argue that the line is crossed when the parent demands that no one in the class, or in the entire school, should read the book or material being challenged. Bannings spawned by an individual parent’s complaint seem to be the most common form of censorship, according to groups that track the issue.

“One of our recommendations is that if a parent or student objects to a particular book that is being read by the entire class, the student be given an alternative book,” says Charles Suhor, a representative of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), who often deals with censorship issues. “If the parent still objects, they are in the position of saying they want to not only guide their child’s reading but the reading of other students. And that, we think, is censorship.”

While so-called “opt-out” provisions are not without their problems, they have provided an important safety valve that “defuses the ability of a parent or group to censor books,” argues West. Coming up with alternative assignments can be disruptive to the curriculum and a “bit of a headache” for teachers, West notes, “but a lot less of a headache than spending your afternoons and evenings at a school board meeting justifying why you are assigning a particular book.”

The clearest cases of censorship involve demands to remove an existing book from the library. Cindy Robinson, associate director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, notes that there are sometimes different issues involved in challenges to materials in the curriculum versus materials in the school library. “When you are dealing with issues in the curriculum, there are questions of whether the material is appropriate to the grade level, to the subject matter, and so forth,” she says. “Whereas in the library, you are talking about voluntary reading and the need for a wide variety of materials so you can fulfill the needs of all children in the school.”

Organized Campaigns

The most explosive controversies, even if not the most common, involve complaints that are part of an organized campaign. Most of these broader attacks are launched by organizations or individuals affiliated with what is commonly called the religious right — religious fundamentalist groups which advocate a literal interpretation of the Bible and which organize politically to impose their religious perspective on public institutions. Some of the most active religious right organizations involved in school censorship issues are the Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, The Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and Citizens for Excellence in Education.

One way for teachers to distinguish between legitimate parental concerns and organized campaigns is to look for patterns. Are objections from individual parents worded the same? Are other teachers getting similarly worded complaints? “That’s a pretty good tip-off that the objections may be orchestrated,” says West. “It’s slightly alarming when that happens because those kind of complaints rarely resolve themselves at the teacher level. They almost always end up at the administration or school board level.”

The religious right’s influence also goes beyond concerted campaigns. Often, challenges may come from individuals who merely listen to television or radio broadcasts or receive mailings from religious right organizations. “It’s not that people are meeting in secret,” notes Kate Frankfurt, director of advocacy for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN). “It’s just that the right is very organized in terms of speaking to their members and the broader public, sending out mailings with a call to action, and fanning the flames of misinformation and fears.”

In recent years, the religious right has moved beyond censorship of particular books and is now “much more concerned with broader issues, arguing, for instance, that they don’t want sex education, or multicultural issues, or anything mentioning gay issues,” according to Duby of People for the American Way. In addition to opposing existing books in the curriculum, the religious right is also trying to get their own material in, such as books advocating creationism or an abstinence-only approach to sex education (see Rethinking Schools Vol. 12 #2 for a look at the controversy over creationism.)

Two of the religious right’s main emphases are attacking broad-based sex education curriculum and materials dealing with gay and lesbian issues. Concerned Women for America (CWA), which says it has about 500,000 members and is the largest women’s organization in the country, for years has attacked the National Education Association for its support of “pro-homosexual propaganda.” The CWA also distributes materials such as its leaflet entitled, “Six Action Steps You Can Take To Oppose the Homosexual Agenda in Your Community’s Schools.”

One of CWA’s current campaigns targets the video “It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay and Lesbian Issues in School.” The documentary, which is intended as a resource for teachers and PTAs, looks at how different schools have worked to develop a more inclusive anti-bias curriculum that examines stereotypes and intolerance toward gay and lesbian people.

In an August 1997 fund-raising letter, CWA calls the film “an aggressive new national campaign to put an extremely dangerous pro-homosexual video in every school in America to be viewed by children as young as kindergarten age.” The letter goes on to argue that the video is “being used to guide schoolchildren into ungodly and immoral behavior that leads to death.”

Community Standards

In their pronouncements before the general public or the mainstream media, religious right organizations usually tone down their rhetoric. Two of their most common arguments are that a book “violates community standards” and/or is not “age appropriate.” Both concepts are important parts of the discussion but are often misused by groups or people attempting to unconstitutionally impose their particular political or religious viewpoint on schools.

Perhaps the best safeguard is to make sure that schools and districts have developed policies which underscore the importance of providing students with a wide range of materials, and which outline how materials are selected. It is also essential that challenges deal with the specifics of the book or materials in question. The vaguer the complaint and the more general the appeal to “community standards,” the more the issue will be prone to political manipulation rather than being decided on its educational merit.

Chanting a mantra of “community standards” begs the question of who defines community and how they do so. Does something in the curriculum violate the standards of the Black community? The white community? The gay and lesbian community? The parent community? The tax-paying community? The school community? Further, appeals to community standards and majority rule cannot be used to circumvent constitutional concerns over freedom of speech.

“Our system is built on two pillars, democracy and liberty,” notes Loren Siegel, director of public education for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The democracy part pertains to the concept of majority rule on issues such as elections, passage of legislation, and so forth. The liberty part pertains to restrictions on majority rule and the protections of minorities, whether they are racial minorities, religious minorities, or political minorities.”

There are certain inalienable rights that are given to every person in the United States by virtue of the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to due process, Siegel underscores. “Those are not up for grabs. … It is just not true that everything in this country is up for a vote. That would mean that if a bunch of white parents didn’t want Black kids in their school anymore, they could vote on it.”

What’s Age Appropriate?

The other common complaint is that a material is not age appropriate. It’s a compelling argument because any concerned parent or teacher is worried about children, especially young children, being exposed to inappropriate books, films, or class discussions. “One of the most common ways that people, who in effect are calling for censorship, get around the stigma of that word is that they use the concept of age-appropriate,” notes West. “It’s a difficult criterion to nail down in real life with real children.”

Issues of age appropriateness are most common in elementary and middle schools. Teachers, parents, and the courts have generally recognized that the older the student, the more that student has “the right to know.” Of the questions about age-appropriate material, the one that schools seem least prepared to deal with, in part because it is relatively new, is the controversy over discussion of gay and lesbian families in the early elementary classroom.

One problem, says Frankfurt of GLSEN, is that “there’s an assumption that if you talk about gay and lesbian people, the conversation will suddenly focus on homosexual sex. And that would be inappropriate in young grades. … But when we talk about gay and lesbian issues to elementary students, we talk about families, we talk about love, we talk about relationships between two people — not sexual relationships, but the overall relationship.”

In some districts, such as Provincetown, MA, conservatives have argued that the term gay and lesbian should not be used in class before the fourth or fifth grade. But such a prohibition prevents teachers taking a pro-active approach to dealing with issues of bias or being sensitive to the needs of children who may have gay parents. Further, it can even prevent teachers from taking more limited action. For example, it can tie a teacher’s hands from responding to anti-gay name-calling. (Put-downs such as “faggot” or “that’s so gay” are frequent playground taunts.)

“Such playground incidents are teachable moments,” Frankfurt says. “Teachers have a responsibility to let kids know that what they are saying is an insult. It is inappropriate and hurtful not only to people who are gay and lesbian but who may have gay and lesbian brothers, or aunts, or uncles.”

Susan Hinkel, who helped found the now-disbanded Council on Interracial Books for Children, currently heads a non-profit group that works to help schools become more inclusive. When she is told that gay-themed books such as “Heather Has Two Mommies” or “Daddy’s Roommate” are inappropriate for first graders, she answers: “Are there gay families in your school? Are there children of gay families in your school? Children who have relatives who may be gay? If there are, then children are already asking all the questions that are answered thoughtfully in those books.”

If teachers don’t address questions that children may have about such issues, they are doing them a disservice, Hinkel argues. “When we hem and haw, or we don’t give children a straight answer, we are silencing their questions, we are silencing their curiosity, we are silencing their permission to discuss.”

Hinkel believes that the controversy over gay and lesbian themes is part of a broader pattern of silencing controversy in schools, in part because so many adults are uncomfortable talking about controversial issues. “We need to talk about censorship beyond the confines of print and video,” she says, “and to talk about the dialogue and discussions that are censored in schools, about what is permissible to talk about and what is not permissible. … We work in schools with children who are coming of age and yet the living issues that most affect them aren’t talked about, in particular their identities. We don’t talk about their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, questions of ‘who am I?’ what is my spirituality, what is the difference between spirituality and religion, what is it to be male and female, how are we treating each other? It’s not formal censorship, but it is almost absolute censorship.”

Sadly, in most censorship cases, administrators or school board members rarely ask the students’ opinions. Parental concerns are often paramount and students’ opinions, let alone their rights, are usually an afterthought. As Quindlen said in a column on the “Where’s Waldo?” controversy, too often parents and administrators succumb “to an impulse that is at the heart of most book-banning in this country. And that is the temptation to treat kids like morons, to sell little people short.”

The Controversial Huck Finn

Of all the books challenged in public schools, probably no other has received more publicity than “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. Controversy was particularly acute in the 1970s and 1980s, when books by non-white authors were far less common in the curriculum and “Huck Finn,” along with Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” were often the only high school literature books dealing with race. In recent years, “Huck Finn” has been dropped from many required reading lists (as have other books from the traditional canon) and is usually offered only as an elective reading or as part of an elective course, according to West.

Complaints about “Huck Finn” have been raised by African-American parents and students who argue that the book’s incessant use of the term “nigger” has a harmful effect on African-American students and contributes to racial animosity and stereotyping. Defenders of the book point out that, despite the surface language, the book at heart is a stinging indictment of the racism of 19th century America. (For a look at how one African-American high school teacher decided to stop teaching Huck Finn, not because he was ordered to do so but because it just wasn’t working with his students, see “Resisting the High School Canon,” Rethinking Schools Vol. 10 #4.) In most cases, schools have tried to reach a compromise that balances parental and community concerns, the need for academic freedom, and the educational and constitutional problems that arise when teachers are given mandates about what books they can or can’t teach. When it comes to censorship, as with other issues of democracy, no strictly legal approach or administrative guideline can substitute for open lines of communication and a process of dialogue that allows everyone to be heard with respect and consideration.

Controversy over the book in the Kenosha, WI, school district provides an example of how the matter is often resolved. In 1995, the superintendent received a letter from John Wright, a representative of the NAACP, asking that “Huck Finn” be removed from the school curriculum because of its use of the term “nigger.” Wright was asked to fill out the form, “Citizen’s Request for Reconsideration of a Book” and the matter was referred to a committee for review. “A high percentage of the committee included African Americans due to the nature of the complaint,” according to a summary of events from the district.

The committee looked at the book’s literary merit, the “particular attitudes and words of its characters,” and the “appropriateness of the book” in the curriculum, including the book’s impact on African-American and white students. It found that there was insufficient cause to exclude the book from the curriculum. But it also argued that it would be inappropriate if “teachers uncomfortable with the tone of the book” were required to teach it.

“While it is the committee’s desire to indicate support for the book, to do so at the expense of the teachers’ freedom to choose appropriate materials is also detrimental,” the committee decided.

The committee also recommended that when the book is used, it is within a context that explains the novel’s historical background and explores issues of racism, language dialects, and the use of racial slurs. The committee also stressed that no student should be forced to read the book. Wright, meanwhile, dropped his threat of a lawsuit when the district agreed that a 1983 version of the book by the Chatham River Press, which was brought in by a teacher and was not a version acquired by the district, would not be used: Illustrations in the Chatham River edition were particularly offensive, with one of them showing a shiftless-looking Joe with a large piece of watermelon and the word “vittles” underneath.

Big Problems for Good Teachers

Joan Bertin of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) notes that historically, censorship has tended to be a tool of the status quo and of those in positions of authority. One of its main purposes has been to suppress dissent. Thus it is not surprising that many censorship cases involve issues such as the rights of gays and lesbians, as they move from the political margins and demand their inclusion as full members of society. Societal changes have also brought other issues into the forefront in recent years, such as teenage sexuality, divorce, drug use, sexual abuse, and harassment. Finally, some cases of censorship appear to be part of the general backlash against multiculturalism, diversity, and the opening up of school curricula to a broader array of perspectives than in the past.

Ironically, the teachers who get in trouble over censorship are often the teachers who are most sensitive to connecting their curriculum with their students’ real lives and who don’t flinch when students, either individually or as a class, want to explore such topics. Adults may shun controversy but adolescents often thrive on it. As Suhor of the NCTE notes, “Teachers who plan well and teach excellently are often the very ones who are under attack in censorship cases.”

What should teachers do, therefore, if a book they are using is challenged? Following are some of the guidelines developed by groups such as the NCTE, the AASA, and the ALA.

  • Don’t panic or act impulsively. Some teachers, administrators, and superintendents have a tendency to sidestep controversy by unilaterally pulling a book from the curriculum or school library. This only makes things worse.
  • Always try and resolve the issue at the lowest level possible. If a parent is complaining, make sure their challenge is listened to and the parent is treated with respect. Many cases, if handled sensitively, need not get to the level of public acrimony and hearings before the school board.
  • For curriculum materials, make sure you can explain the educational value of a book and how it fits into your curriculum.
  • Help parents understand that part of learning to read better is acquiring the habit of reading for pleasure. Many children like scary stories, or goofy stories, or gross stories, even if they aren’t Newberry award-winning books.
  • Make sure your school and district have established policies in place to both select materials and handle challenges. Make sure the policies are followed consistently.
  • If necessary, refer the controversy to a broadly based committee of teachers, educators, librarians, and parents.
  • If it appears the issue will not be easily settled, don’t wait to get outside help. This includes legal counsel, help with media relations, and support from national organizations involved in censorship cases. Teachers also need to be aware that what begins as a censorship issue can sometimes end up as a case of alleged “insubordination”.

The unfortunate reality is that a teacher or district can do all of the above and still end up on the front pages of the local newspaper for allegedly promoting smut, or homosexuality, or whatever the charge may be. When that happens, “it’s admittedly going to be tough,” notes Siegel of the ACLU. “But I would say to teachers that if they believe that the books or materials in question serve an important educational function in their curriculum, and if they can articulate that, then they probably have a constitutionally protected right to use that material.”

As the saying goes, the Bill of Rights is only as strong as the paper it is written on — and the backbone of people willing to defend it.