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 59).

-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"