This post was written by Donald Parker, a former high school social studies teacher, a longtime ACLU member, and co-coordinator of the Long Island Coalition against Censorship (which was active from 1982 to 2010). It will soon by published by Anton Newspapers, a chain of local weeklies on Long Island.
Many popular perceptions of censorship are myths and should be challenged.
Myth - Censorship occurs primarily in states that would be associated with right-wing conservative views often identified as the “Bible Belt.”
Reality – Many years ago, the organization, People for the American Way, in tracking cases of censorship, listed the ten states reporting the most incidents of challenges. Only two of the states would be identified with the “Bible Belt,” in the South, the others were from all sections of the country. Each year, written incidents of censorship sent to the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association continue to have no geographic pattern. The organization considers censorship to be a national problem.
Myth - Censorship is usually identified with conservative political or religious groups.
Reality - Examples include the Harry Potter series – the principal reason, wizardry - and Tango Makes Three - the reason, supposed homosexuality of penquins. However, groups not usually identified as conservative also censor. A few years ago, the NAACP unsuccessfully sought to have the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary redefine the “N” word and limit it to its offensive connotation. (The publisher refused to limit the definition since over time it has had many different meanings).
Concern has also been expressed regarding the depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Some Jewish organizations have challenged its inclusion in the Language Arts curriculum in high schools.
Myth – Censorship in public schools is focused on school libraries and books used in the classrooms.
Reality – In addition to the efforts of some education officials to censor books, school administrators in many states (not New York) have “for pedagogical reasons” the final say regarding the contents of official student newspapers. Notwithstanding, the Student Press Law Center, which represents students in challenges to their First Amendment rights, reports that more and more students are using the Internet and social media to publish their views without being subject to censorship by school officials.
School plays and performances are routinely screened by school administrators. A few years ago, a drama class in Wilton, Connecticut was prohibited from presenting a dramatic reading of a cross-section of views by soldiers in Iraq. The students were able to take advantage of several offers to present their reading in theaters outside of their school. They accepted the invitation to present their program at the Public Theater in New York City.
Myth – Current books for children and teenagers which focus on sex, violence and drugs are the principal objects of the censors.
Reality – While this is true, current reports of censorship are sent to the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. These reports published annually, show that books written a number of years ago also continue to be the targets of the censors. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn published in 1885, and The Catcher in the Rye published in 1951, are on hit lists. The 1970s novels of Judy Blume, especially popular among teen age girls, are still subjected to censorship.
According to the Office of Intellectual Freedom of ALA, among the top ten books challenged last year were Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
What can be done about censorship in libraries and schools?
A response to the censors was offered many years ago by playwright, Clare Boothe Luce, “Charity like censorship should begin at home, but unlike charity, should end there.” The First Amendment remains imperiled when individuals or organizations place their ideologies above the First Amendment.
Each year, the American Library Association designates a week in the fall as Banned Books Week. This year it is September 21st to September 27th. In recognition of the spirit of the First Amendment, many public libraries as well as school libraries and classrooms display banned books and present programs celebrating freedom to read. Join in – visit your library and don’t forget to read a banned book!